📚 The Passenger (Cormac McCarthy)

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The Passenger is a 2022 novel by the American writer Cormac McCarthy.[1] It was released six weeks before its companion novel Stella Maris. The plot of both The Passenger and Stella Maris follows Bobby and Alicia Western, two siblings whose father helped develop the atomic bomb.

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The novel follows Bobby Western, a salvage diver, across the Gulf of Mexico and the American South.[2][1] Western is haunted by his father’s contributions to the development of the atomic bomb,[2] and tormented by his inability to save his sister Alicia—the protagonist of the novel’s proto-sequel, Stella Maris—from suicide, which happens a decade before The Passenger takes place.[3] Alicia was a mathematics prodigy who worked under the tutelage of Alexander Grothendieck (a real mathematician who shunned the field at the peak of his influence and chose to live in relative seclusion[4]). The Western siblings grow up in east Tennessee as their father works at Oak Ridge on the Manhattan Project (with luminary physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer).[5] Both children are math prodigies; Alicia studies at the University of Chicago while Bobby drops out of Caltech to pursue a career as a Formula 2 race car driver in Europe, though a serious crash puts him in a temporary coma and ends his driving career.[6] The events of the novel are punctuated with short, italicized chapters about Alicia’s treatment for schizophrenia due to hallucinations of a deformed figure the narrator named “Thalidomide Kid” who perpetually teases and belittles her and summons his ghostly cohorts to perform unwanted and garish entertainment acts.

Following a salvage dive to recover any survivors from a submerged airplane, Bobby discovers that the pilot’s flight bag and data box are missing. Within a few days, he returns to his apartment to find two agents of some kind who ask questions about the submerged airplane and the missing items, and Western learns there was also a missing tenth passenger.

Western spends time in bars and restaurants in New Orleans with old friends discussing truths philosophical and scientific. He visits his grandmother in Tennessee. Her house had been ransacked two years prior, and his father’s research papers and all family records were taken. Now in hiding from the authorities on the advice of Kline (a private investigator), Western has his 1973 Maserati Bora seized and his bank account frozen by the I.R.S., ostensibly for failing to record in his taxes the money he inherited from his paternal grandmother. Left destitute, Western drifts across the country as a transient, eventually coming to reside in Formentera. At the end of the novel, Western lies in his bed in a windmill penning a letter to his sister, the love of his life. He has forgotten her face and believes he will see it again when he dies.

The Passenger by Wikipedia

As is often the way with McCarthy, The Passenger is a book about characters and their journey through the world. As Peggy Ellsberg captures, the book explores identity, legacy and death and lose.

After Alicia’s suicide, Bobby loses his mooring and works for a while as a salvage diver in the Gulf of Mexico, a spooky enterprise involving deep descents into dark waters. He visits bars in New Orleans, lives in single rooms with his cat, hides out at the beach in an abandoned shack, eats roadkill, becomes so skinny that his clothes “hang on him.” As the story proceeds, Bobby also winters over in an unheated house in remote Idaho, cogitating on particle physics. He is a physicist but also a passenger, carried through the narrative by love, grief, and sheer stamina.

Source: No Prayer for Such a Thing: On Cormac McCarthy’s “The Passenger” By Peggy Ellsberg

Although it offers possible narrative elements … missing passenger, Nuclear father, finding a golden inheritance … these moments often serve other purposes. As Graeme Wood touches on, the focus is about contending with life.

The novels McCarthy published in 2022, at the age of 89, permanently resolve the question of whether McCarthy is a great novelist, or Louis L’Amour with a thesaurus. The booming, omnipotent narrative voice, which first appeared in McCarthy’s Western novels of the 1980s and had already begun to fade in No Country for Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006), has ebbed almost entirely in these books—perhaps like the voice of Yahweh himself, as he transitioned from interventionist to absentee in the Old Testament. What remain are human voices, which is to say characters, contending with one another and with their own fears and regrets, as they face the prospect of the godless void that awaits them. The result is heavy but pleasurable, and together the books are the richest and strongest work of McCarthy’s career.

Source: The Incandescent Wisdom of Cormac McCarthy By Graeme Wood

This has similarities with Shakespeare, where it is the characters that matter.

The Shakespeare is no coincidence—and of course Shakespeare, too, was weak on plot; as William Hazlitt and later Bloom affirmed, the characters are what matter. McCarthy’s Sheddan is an elongated Falstaff, skinny where Falstaff is fat, despite dining out constantly in the French Quarter on credit cards stolen from tourists. But like Falstaff, he is witty, and capable of uttering only the deepest verities whenever he is not telling outright lies. Bobby Western regularly shares in his stolen food and drink, and their dialogue—mostly Sheddan’s side of it—provides the sharpest statement of Bobby’s bind.

Source: The Incandescent Wisdom of Cormac McCarthy By Graeme Wood

It is a novel about ‘human concerns … scrutinized on the highest existential plane’.

Put another way, the early novels took place on a human scale, and Blood Meridian was about contests among humanoid creatures so violent and warlike that they might be gods and demons, a Western Götterdämmerung. The protagonist of the Border Trilogy was like a human on an expedition through this inhuman landscape. And the late novels featured humans forsaken by the gods and pitted against one another, or in the case of No Country, contending with demons and losing. McCarthy’s latest, and probably last, novels represent a return to human concerns, but ones—love, death, guilt, illusion—experienced and scrutinized on the highest existential plane.

Source: The Incandescent Wisdom of Cormac McCarthy By Graeme Wood

The Passenger is not a meandering tale like Blood Meridian or The Road, but it is still a journey. In some respects I was left thinking of Don Delilo and even Samuel Beckett, but feel the more I scratch at the surface, Flannery O’Conner might be a better comparison. (The trans character felt like they had just walked off the set of Wise Blood.) For Xan Brooks, it is a wreck of an idea:

Published a full 16 years after the Pulitzer prize-winning The Road, The Passenger is like a submerged ship itself; a gorgeous ruin in the shape of a hardboiled noir thriller. McCarthy’s generational saga covers everything from the atomic bomb to the Kennedy assassination to the principles of quantum mechanics. It’s by turns muscular and maudlin, immersive and indulgent. Every novel, said Iris Murdoch, is the wreck of a perfect idea. This one is enormous. It’s got locked doors and blind turns. It contains skeletons and buried gold.

Source: The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy review – a deep dive into the abyss By Xan Brooks

Brooks talks about the attempt to escape history:

High-concept plots take on water; machine-tooled narratives break down. And so it is with The Passenger, which sets out as an existential chase thriller in the mould of No Country for Old Men before collapsing in on itself. Western might outpace his pursuers but he can’t escape his own history. So he heads into the desert, alone, to watch the oil refineries burning in the distance and observe the carpet-coloured vipers coiled in the grass at his feet. “The abyss of the past into which the world is falling,” he thinks. “Everything vanishing as if it had never been.”

Source: The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy review – a deep dive into the abyss By Xan Brooks

Along with Stella Maris, these novels linger long after they are finished.

Marginalia

V

Being wrong is the worst thing a physicist can be. It’s up there with being dead.

You cant illustrate the unknown.

VII

Even if all news of the world was a lie it would not then follow that there is some counterfactual truth for it to be a lie about.
I suppose I would agree. If it does have a somewhat lampish smell to it. The Greeks, I suppose.
I suppose. Possibly of course of humbler origins.
Such as Mossy Creek.
Such as. Do you ever think what it would be like to meet a person you’ve known for a long time for the first time in these later years? To meet them anew.

VIII

All right. It’s not just that I dont have to write things down. There’s more to it than that. What you write down becomes fixed. It takes on the constraints of any tangible entity. It collapses into a reality estranged from the realm of its creation. It’s a marker. A roadsign. You have stopped to get your bearings, but at a price. You’ll never know where it might have gone if you’d left it alone to go there. In any conjecture you’re always looking for weaknesses. But sometimes you have the sense that you should hold off. Be patient. Have a little faith. You really want to see what the conjecture itself is going to drag up out of the murk. I dont know how one does mathematics. I dont know that there is a way. The idea is always struggling against its own realization. Ideas come with an innate skepticism, they dont just go barreling ahead. And these doubts have their origin in the same world as the idea itself. And that’s not something you really have access to. So the reservations that you yourself in your world of struggle bring to the table may actually be alien to the path of these emerging structures. Their own intrinsic doubts are steering-mechanisms while yours are more like brakes. Of course the idea is going to come to an end anyway. Once a mathematical conjecture is formalized into a theory it may have a certain luster to it but with rare exceptions you can no longer entertain the illusion that it holds some deep insight into the core of reality. It has in fact begun to look like a tool.

I dont know what’s going to happen. I’m not sure that I want to. Know. If I could plan my life I wouldnt want to live it. I probably dont want to live it anyway. I know that the characters in the story can be either real or imaginary and that after they are all dead it wont make any difference. If imaginary beings die an imaginary death they will be dead nonetheless. You think that you can create a history of what has been. Present artifacts. A clutch of letters. A sachet in a dressingtable drawer. But that’s not what’s at the heart of the tale. The problem is that what drives the tale will not survive the tale. As the room dims and the sound of voices fades you understand that the world and all in it will soon cease to be. You believe that it will begin again. You point to other lives. But their world was never yours.

I dont believe anything about God. I just believe in God. Kant had it right about the stars above and the truth within. The last light the nonbeliever will see will not be the dimming of the sun. It will be the dimming of God. Everyone is born with the faculty to see the miraculous. You have to choose not to.

History is a collection of paper. A few fading recollections. After a while what is not written never happened.

IX

If you’d never been anyplace before and you didnt know where it was that you were going or why it was that you were going there then how excited would you be about going?
Not very I suppose.

X

It’s the idea of loss. It subsumes the class of all possible lost things. It’s our primal fear, and you get to assign to it what you will. It doesnt invade your life. It was always there. Awaiting your indulgence. Awaiting your concession. And still I feel I sold you short. How to sort your tale from out the commons. It must surely be true that there is no such collective domain of joy as there is of sorrow. You cant be sure that another man’s happiness resembles your own. But where the collective of pain is concerned there can be little doubt at all. If we are not after the essence, Squire, then what are we after? And I’ll defer to your view that we cannot uncover such a thing without putting our stamp upon it. And I’ll even grant you that you may have drawn the darker cards. But listen to me, Squire. Where the substance of a thing is an uncertain business the form can hardly command more ground. All reality is loss and all loss is eternal. There is no other kind. And that reality into which we inquire must first contain ourselves. And what are we? Ten percent biology and ninety percent nightrumor.

Mercy is the province of the person alone. There is mass hatred and there is mass grief. Mass vengeance and even mass suicide. But there is no mass forgiveness. There is only you.

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