After a 16-year hiatus, Cormac McCarthy has published not one but two novels this year: The Passenger, released in October, and a sequel, Stella Maris.
The Passenger tells the story of Bobby Western, a salvage diver who becomes ensnared in a mysterious conspiracy that he struggles in vain to uncover. At the heart of the novel is Bobby’s unremitting grief for his dead sister Alicia, with whom he is helplessly in love. Interspersed with Bobby’s adventures are surreal scenes from the past in which the teenage Alicia, a maths prodigy with a loose grip on reality, converses with a troupe of hallucinatory entertainers led by a man with flippers instead of hands.
Alicia is brought centre stage in Stella Maris, which consists solely of transcripts of her conversations with a psychiatrist at the institution to which she commits herself at the age of 20. Alicia’s frank account of her reciprocated but unconsummated incestuous desire is undoubtedly the most moving (and disturbing) aspect of the novel.
Too many of these conversations, however, revolve around philosophical questions about the nature of truth, reality and existence, heavily laden with references to mathematicians, philosophers and scientific theories. Though giving readers the clearest picture yet of McCarthy’s philosophical commitments, these longueurs will test the patience of even the most devoted fans.
‘I miss breakfast rolls and the sense of humour but our life in the US has been as normal as anyone else’s with young kids’
Whilst McCarthy has written dialogue-heavy novels before, the complete eschewal of his inimitably evocative style of description that endows events with a quasi-Biblical significance makes Stella Maris at once his most conventional and least characteristic work. In dialogue form, McCarthy’s customary bleakness comes dangerously close to sounding like a second-rate Beckett play, as in Alicia’s glib clarification when asked what she feels guilty about: “other than being born I suppose.” The forbidden love between brother and sister, meanwhile, never quite takes on the epic proportions it assumes in The Passenger, with its haunting closing image of Bobby as “the last pagan on earth, singing softly upon his pallet in an unknown tongue.”
Stella Maris is a difficult novel to recommend on its own terms and should be the last of McCarthy’s works a newcomer should read. Despite all that, it gains such emotional power from the richness of its predecessor that it will satisfy any reader who found The Passenger compelling.