Great, Beautiful, Terrifying, by Joy Williams

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January 2023 Issue [Reviews]

Great, Beautiful, Terrifying

On Cormac McCarthy

Parlemor, by Jens Fänge. Courtesy the artist and Perrotin

[Reviews]

Great, Beautiful, Terrifying

On Cormac McCarthy
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Discussed in this essay:

The Passenger, by Cormac McCarthy. Knopf. 400 pages. $30.

Stella Maris, by Cormac McCarthy. Knopf. 208 pages. $26.

Cormac McCarthy’s latest offering—in that word’s fundamentally spiritual sense—is The Passenger and its coda or addendum, Stella Maris. One is prompted to read The Passenger first (it came out in October) and Stella Maris second (it came out in December). If, however, you dare to test the trickster and begin with Stella Maris—a 189-page conversation between a psychiatrist and his patient—it will seriously trouble your perception of The Passenger. If you read the books in order, you might find Stella Maris (Latin for Star of the Sea, a psychiatric hospital in Black River Falls, Wisconsin) coldly underwhelming despite, or perhaps because of, the erudition of the twenty-one-year-old, debatably schizophrenic, suicidal math genius Alice Western. The confines of the construct—the conversation—serve McCarthy’s most recent obsessions: mathematics, quantum mechanics, topology (the theory of which Alice admiringly describes as “a place to stand where you can look back at the world from nowhere”); as well as the subjects of his abiding interests: language, the unconscious, evil, the world’s indifference. But the construct here doesn’t allow the cloaking of concepts in character. Mathematics is a different language, being not a language at all. It is not literature; it is antithetical to literature. The interlocutor, a Dr. Cohen, is no Grand Inquisitor, no Judge Holden. He is professionally, incurably dull, the most deliberately uninteresting voice McCarthy has ever uttered. McCarthy has pocketed his own liturgical, ecstatic style as one would a coin, a ring, a key, in the service of a more demanding and heartless inquiry through mathematics and physics into the immateriality, the indeterminacy, of reality.

McCarthy is not interested in the psychology of character. He probably never has been. He’s interested in the horror of every living creature’s situation. Brilliant, beautiful Alice is barely believable as a female human being. And why should she be? She’s a quester, an outlier, a method of inquiry, an experiment maybe, experimented upon like a mink crazed in a lab. Her thoughts, her devotions, her dreams, her abilities—they’re all in high orbit. She cried the first two years of her life, could read at four, confessed to synesthesia at seven, perceived the world as through a judas hole at ten:

There were sentinels standing at a gate and I knew that beyond the gate was something terrible and that it had power over me. . . . A being. A presence. And that the search for shelter and for a covenant among us was simply to elude this baleful thing of which we were in endless fear and yet of which we had no knowledge.

At twelve, visitations commence from the Kid, a far cry from the feckless, murderous innocent of Blood Meridian. This Kid is a small, fast-talking, impatient, thalidomide-damaged personage with flippers for hands. He arrives with an assemblage of musty entertainers and his visits go on for years.

At fourteen, Alice finishes college. She completes doctoral work at the University of Chicago two years later, and then receives a fellowship to study with the great mathematician Alexander Grothendieck at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques in France. She commits herself on three occasions to Stella Maris, though she really wanted to go to St. Coletta, where Rosemary Kennedy went after her lobotomy. She estimates she’s read ten thousand books. When asked by Dr. Cohen if she remembers everything she reads, she replies, “Yes. Why else would you read it?”

“Do you think of yourself as an atheist?” inquires Dr. Cohen during one of their final conversations. “God no,” she says. “Those were the good old days.”

As for her belief in the afterlife, she says, “I don’t believe in this one.”

Alice runs circles around this Dr. Cohen. She is the circle, actually, the Ouroboros, the snake of mythology coiled with its tail in its mouth, sacred symbol of the eternal cycle of destruction and rebirth, most secularly realized by the chemist August Kekulé’s dream about the configuration of molecules. Cormac McCarthy is interested in Kekulé’s dream and in the unconscious and in the distaste for language the unconscious harbors and the mystery of the evolution of language, which chose only one species to evolve in. He’s interested in the preposterous acceptance that one thing—a sound that becomes a word—can refer to another thing, mean another thing, replacing the world bit by bit with what can be said about it.

Alice is the sturdy vessel for McCarthy’s thinking. Perhaps too sturdy a vessel; one might prefer a bit of spillage, some froth, some fun. And this is provided! In the grotesqueness of the Kid, whose appearances she calmly accepts. She refers to him and his ridiculous accomplices as her horts—cohorts, staff, jinn, manifestations, familiars, entities, eidolons. Angels or guides they most certainly are not. They are, they become, her pals, her only pals, what she is “left with,” poor guardians, sideshow freaks, bad vaudeville acts. Their jokes, Alice points out, are the corniest, most awful ones she’s ever heard.

Papa mole comes along tunneling under the garden and he sniffs and he says: I smell rutabagas. And Mama mole comes along behind him and she sniffs and she says: I smell turnips. And Baby mole comes along and sniffs and what does Baby mole say he smells?

He say he dont smell nothing but molasses.

They fall over themselves hooting and guffawing.

Or:

Mickey Mouse is filing for divorce and the judge looks down and he says: I understand that it is your contention that your wife Minnie Mouse is mentally deranged. Is that correct? And Mickey says: No, Your Honor, that’s not what I said. What I said was she’s fucking nuts.

The Kid stomped around the room holding himself at the waist and laughing his yukking laugh.

You always get everything wrong [Alice says]. What are you laughing at?

Whooh, he gasped. What?

You always get everything wrong. It’s Goofy. It’s not nuts.

What’s the difference?

She was fucking Goofy. You don’t even get it.

Yeah, well. We got you.

The Kid makes the character of Alice real. But only in The Passenger, where there are long italicized sessions with him and his crew. The Kid is confrontational, digressive, nonsensical, the mirror image of a dream of pure understanding. In Stella Maris, he is merely described. Three-foot-two. Fifty pounds. Odd face, odd look. Paces all the time, often with his flippers folded behind his back, in the style of an ice-skater. Coherent in every detail. Alice maintains that he is “perfect,” though she does tell Cohen that he looks “maybe burnt. His skull is scarred. As if maybe he’s had an accident.” She neglects to note what she well knows in The Passenger—that the Kid and his kind were burnt quite badly when she agreed to a shot of electric shock in the clinic.

The cauterized horts in their charred and blackened rags stood smoking at her bedfoot. . . . They looked dispirited, sullen, angry. The Kid was pacing up and back. His face was black with soot. The wispy hairs on his head were singed to a stubble and his cloak was smoking. She put one hand to her mouth.

Cute, he said. Really fucking cute.

I’m sorry.

You think this is funny?

No.

What the fuck were you thinking of?

I don’t know.

Still, as a patient, Alice is not particularly devious. She’s not in this for the therapy; she only agreed to chat. It is Dr. Cohen who is hobbled by doublethink, suspecting that in his line of work the troubled sometimes tell him something they don’t want him to know in order to conceal something they really don’t want him to know. Initially she refuses to talk about her brother Bobby—Bobby Western—whose strange, oneiric story is very much told in The Passenger. She does confide that he is in a coma from a race car crash in Europe. Prior to her self-admittance to Stella Maris she spent two months at a hospital in Italy, “waiting for him to die.” The doctors say he is brain-dead; they want her permission to terminate life-support. This she cannot do and she flees. Bobby is brain-dead. Dead.

Anna DeForest, in her taut, smart book A History of Present Illness, points out that brain death as death was pretty much invented, the criteria for it established by a committee at Harvard in 1968. The Church, weighing in on the implications of ventilators (which had replaced the massive machinery known as iron lungs keeping permanently compromised or comatose people alive) said it was permissible to turn off the machines in hopeless cases if the soul had left the body—exitus animae.

“The heart,” DeForest writes, “was once considered the seat of the soul, then Descartes relocated it to the pineal gland, one of the only unpaired structures in the brain, and then it was done away with entirely.”

Well, as far as medicine was concerned. And you know doctors, always trying to find the most convenient way out of ethical dilemmas.

The invention of brain death serves the timeline of The Passenger well, and traversing this twisting line, tracing and retracing it, contesting it, surrendering to it, is one of the great and pleasurable challenges of these books. Is there a narrative line? The Kid thinks it’s important to locate one even if, as he says, it doesn’t hold up in court. As for McCarthy, plot has always been irrelevant to his purposes.

Alice eventually tells Cohen of her love for Bobby, the carnal, forbidden kind, her desire to marry him and have a child. Incest might not pack the punch it once did—there are so many worse things, right? Like the bomb their father helped build back in the heyday of Los Alamos and Oak Ridge, but Cohen is modestly taken aback, saying, “The stigma of incest has no meaning for you?” He’s somewhat reassured (from a mental health point of view) when, asking Alice if she still imagines an intimate relationship with her brother, she replies, “My brother’s dead.”

We are nearing the end of Alice’s account in Stella Maris. Her life will resume in The Passenger, commencing with her death on the first page, before the initial chapter, when a hunter finds her body hanging from a tree in the woods surrounding the psychiatric hospital, a red sash tied around her waist so she would be found. On Christmas Day 1972.

The Passenger is McCarthy’s eleventh novel. Eleven: the Master Number. Each book has been linguistically astounding. Of the first three—The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, and Child of God—the critic John W. Aldridge, who found McCarthy’s genius “bizarre,” noted that through a “lexical chemistry” language established itself as the authoritative character, “declaring its sovereignty over the other characters by creating a context in which they take on a richness of meaning that they do not in themselves possess.” Suttree, somewhat of an indulgence, a romp, a Knoxville picaresque, closed out the Seventies. In the Eighties was Blood Meridian, his vicious masterwork. Harold Bloom placed it in his canon of the American Sublime, considering the figure of the Judge “violence incarnate,” and, “short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature.”

At the time, I lent my copy to my friend the musician Eric Von Schmidt. I can’t remember now what he said he thought about it when he returned it, but for some reason he had written a personal provisions list on the previously blank frontpiece:

Flypaper

Bullets

Fish

Salad

He had a beautiful hand, befitting an artist.

After Blood Meridian came the sorrowful Border Trilogy of the Nineties—All the Pretty Horses,The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain—where bildungsroman ends not in wisdom but at the gate where the spirit falters. McCarthy has always been interested in this gate beyond which lies the World as it is that waits. Sometimes it’s described as a “sweatsoaked beast, some hooded and wheezing abhorrence”; sometimes, nameless, it presumes a name—The Archatron.

In the first decade of our fresh now weary century, No Country for Old Men was published, exploring further the bloody erosion of any western code that might once have been pretended to. One year later came The Road—another masterpiece, apocalyptic, purer, love-soaked, more awful and divine.

McCarthy has moved in his work from the violent, unforgiving unconsciousness of the Iliad to the rationally controlled scheming of the Odyssey, though in McCarthy no home awaits the search. In The Road it’s been extinguished altogether; father and son tramp toward the nothing of a lifeless sea. In The Passenger home is but way stations in hopeless transit. People live in attics, on beaches, in asylums for the mad, in rooms above bars vacated by suicides: a detective questions the owner of the establishment Seven Seas about a renter named Lurch who stuffed socks under his door and “took the pipe.”

Was he sort of a quiet person or what?

Quiet? Hell no he wasn’t quiet.

Was he a troublemaker?

Josie sucked on her cigarette. She thought about that. Look, she said, I’m not one to speak ill of the dead. You don’t know where they might be or whose ear they might have. . . . All I can say is that he never done nothin like this before.

The homes of grandparents are obliterated for highways or reservoirs, taken for the needs of the TVA or the bomb makers with their secrets and their “stipulations”—government condemnations from which there is no redress. Bobby’s maternal grandmother, reminiscing about her lost childhood home, describes the way in which her grandfather and uncle built the house by hand in 1872. Marveling at their ingenuity, she says, “I don’t know how they knew to do what they done.”

She could just as well be speaking of the men who developed the nuclear bomb—the siblings’ father included—who participated with happy vigor in the Manhattan Project, the result of which was the incineration of two of our enemy’s cities. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

The living walked about but there was no place to go. . . . They were like insects in that no one direction was preferable to another. Burning people crawled among the corpses like some horror in a vast crematorium. They simply thought that the world had ended. It hardly even occurred to them that it had anything to do with the war. They carried their skin bundled up in their arms before them like wash that it not drag in the rubble and ash and they passed one another mindlessly on their mindless journeyings over the smoking afterground, the sighted no better served than the blind.

In Alice’s opinion the bomb was one of the most significant events in human history, right “up there with fire and language . . . at least number three and it may be number one.”

Numbers, numbers, they can be fascinating, even droll, and can pop up anywhere. (The code name for the Enola Gay, the “delivery” plane, was “Dimples 82.”) Alice’s idol, Grothendieck, described scientists and mathematicians as the most dangerous people on the planet, providing annihilating technological power to generals and politicians. The discoverers don’t have a clue as to what they want to discover. They’re drawn to the intrigue of experiment, the elegance of theory. No sin, no responsibility. No guilt, no foul.

They want to separate the world from its secrets but very much want to keep their own, this they, these authorities. In this world of passengers they ask questions to which no answer will suffice. They make things inaccessible—land, bank accounts, a Maserati in a garage, one’s very sense of being, of self. McCarthy’s creatures flee these forces, flee and settle like frightened birds, trying to evade that which does not wish them well, which seeks nothing less than their erasure. Time transports and tears them from place to place: deserts, shores, mountains, Knoxville, Tucson, El Paso, Chicago, New Orleans. It’s said that McCarthy never writes about a place he’s never been. This might be true, I suppose, with the exception of Hell—the Demonium—which he still manages to describe with obscene glamour.

McCarthy’s passage has always been this Demonium. And war and language, fettered nature, the world of men. He sort of neglects women in his work. I’m sure this has been pointed out to him. In The Passenger he constructs one Debussey Fields, a dishy tenderhearted trans woman who just wants to be a “real girl,” “atavistically feminine.” Atavistic or not he doesn’t draw them very well. He does cats better. Cats, dogs, horses. Billy Parham’s grief at the death of the she-wolf in The Crossing seems more authentic than the sorrow Bobby feels at his sister’s absence. Alice is no female archetype, she’s a “one-off,” inaccessible, a lustful brain, albeit lovely, beautiful, a downright train-wrecker, as described by Bobby’s Falstaffian friend John Sheddan, or in the words of Dr. Cohen, “extremely good-looking.” In writing her, McCarthy’s done what he’s done here. Which is as it should be. He writes her living, he writes her dead. Within The Passenger she continues more or less, in somber twilight and paraselene, a thing composed of light and loss, increasingly dominating Bobby’s thoughts, making of his strange life a remnant.

And there is something very strange about this life of Bobby Western. He’s a highly educated guy doing the brutish, dangerous work of salvage diving, though he’s admittedly afraid of depths. He’s taciturn, assured, a good listener, a dependable friend. But he rather spooks the shit out of the men he works with. Before hiring out as a diver he drove race cars at 180 miles per hour. He has a plate in his head as the result of that dalliance. A metal rod in one leg. “That sort of thing,” John Sheddan recounts to a gang of drinkers at a table Bobby has just left outside the Napoleon House in New Orleans.

Reading The Passenger before Stella Maris, one is immediately, astonishingly, confidently led into pandemonium with ten pages of a dwarf ranting incomprehensibly at a girl in a filthy rooming house. The girl is writing a letter to her brother, and the visitation, the Kid, the Thalidomide Kid, her frightful familiar, is taunting her.

What do you think? At the last minute little Bobby Shafto is going to wake up from the dead and come and rescue you? . . . He’s out of the loop, Louise. Since he duffeled his head in his racing machine.

She looked away. The Kid shaded his eyes with one flipper. Well, he said. That got her attention.

You don’t know what you’re talking about.

Yeah? How long’s he been snoozing now? A couple of months?

He’s still alive.

He’s still alive. Oh, well shit. If he’s still alive what the hell. Why dont you come off it. We both know why you’re not sticking around vis-à-vis the fallen one. Dont we? . . . It’s because we dont know what’s going to wake up. If it wakes up. We both know what the chances are of his coming out of this with his mentis intactus and gutsy girl that you are I dont see you being quite so enamored of whatever vestige might still be lurking there behind the clouded eye and the drooling lip. Well what the hell. You never know what’s in the cards, do you?

The events immediately following appear by contrast normal, if fundamentally impossible. A plane, a JetStar, has gone down in forty feet of water off Pass Christian, and Bobby and another diver have been called upon to determine if there are any survivors. The plane is intact, sealed; the latching mechanism of the door has to be removed with a cutting torch. There are nine corpses inside: the pilot, co-pilot, and seven passengers. But there were eight passengers on the plane. One is missing. The pilot’s flight bag and part of the instrument panel as well. The tragedy remains unreported and the vexed question of the missing passenger hexes Bobby’s days and proves to be both haunt and ruination. Something very much wants something from him, that of which he has no knowledge and cannot provide.

Bobby’s life is confusing and fragmentary—this is the nature of life—but he also seems to be residing in a simulacrum of hell, of frightful dreams and reluctant memories. Or possibly it is a waiting room of heaven where there is still drama and dread and cruel vanishings but also good friends and conversations and meals. Putting aside any concern we might have that an individual with a serious head injury would find deepwater diving compatible with recovery, we might find the recovery itself somewhat mystifying. The brain-dead do not usually respond to future life-affirming activities. The doctors must certainly have been impressed, even dumbfounded, given their diagnosis. Bobby’s resurrection is not addressed. Nor is Alice’s final resting place disclosed. The present of The Passenger takes place, more or less, ten years after her suicide.

In one remarkable scene midway through, the Kid visits Bobby, who is hermiting on a ragged beach south of Bay St. Louis. He is much as Alice had described him, with “a small, egg-shaped skull and the visible commissures of the plates through the papery skin. The chewed looking ears.” There is a violent electrical storm as the pair trudge along the shore, but the Kid’s presence and purpose remain unilluminated as Bobby asks all the wrong questions about life, death, and guilt. Later:

In the spring of the year birds began to arrive on the beach from across the gulf. Weary passerines. Vireos. Kingbirds and grosbeaks. Too exhausted to move. You could pick them up out of the sand and hold them trembling in your palm. Their small hearts beating and their eyes shuttering. He walked the beach with his flashlight the whole of the night to fend away predators and toward the dawn he slept with them in the sand. That none disturb these passengers.

The novel is dizzyingly, meticulously constructed, the orchestration of time—of passage, essentially—conducted rigorously, unfathomably, like a mathematical inquiry into the spiritual. For all the classic McCarthy turns here—the rowdy regionalisms and high rhetoric, the attention to the gear and tackle and trim of working life, the stratagems of music and conspiracies and spending gold, the stuff of things built, houses, oil platforms, violins—the primary, the overwhelming subject is the soul. Where can it be found? By what means does it travel? Is it frightened when we take leave of it? Can it find rest in the darkness? Animula vagula blandula. The soul. The freed and missing passenger.

Cormac McCarthy has been writing great, rawly humorous, beautiful, terrifying books for years. There’s more than a hint of the Ogdoad in these two, a sacramental yet heretical consciousness. Stella Maris is a performance of authorial sport and maybe necessity, but it’s all but ungraftable onto The Passenger, which might as well have been written on vellum as befits a codex. This is a book that demands that we pay attention, an outrageous skirting of today’s rules of literary engagement.

McCarthy has long maintained a reverence for the unconscious, a belief that language can pay only inadequate homage to it. It’s that part of being that knows what cannot be known only through its own particular process. Perhaps the business of The Passenger, for all its somber romanticism and Gnostic leanings, is to defer to this unconsciousness, to give shape to that which might well be the soul, or at least its most faithful companion.

“Everything vanishes forever. To the extent that you refuse to accept that, then you are living in a fantasy,” says the fantastical Alice. A new Realism much like the old.

And perhaps the situation here is that Bobby and Alice, an Adam and Eve twice banished, are in Kierkegaard’s phrase “kins of the mould.” That they and their acquaintances are already gone—afterimages lingering in the afterlife of a mock moon, soon to be made absent forever in a world waning null.