The Dream Songs

With The Passenger and Stella Maris, Cormac McCarthy frames the quantum novel.

the passenger, stella maris, cormac mccarthy
Beowulf Sheehan

As I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger, I began to have disordered dreams. In one, a friend appeared to me as if across an unbridgeable distance. In another, I watched a former student strike a stranger with a car. I mention this because The Passenger, along with its companion novel, Stella Maris, is very much a book of dreaming, through which the unconscious moves like a narrative force. There’s a sentiment that dreams have no place in fiction, that they are a cheap trick, a transparent device. I don’t subscribe to that perspective; for me, dreams open a piece of writing to the inchoate or the unseen. They allow a writer to blur all sorts of lines. Blurring the line, of course, is one of the many things McCarthy is up to in this dyadic set of novels, his first new work since The Road, which won a Pulitzer Prize in fiction, was published in 2006.

Because of that long gap, the publication of The Passenger, which appeared last week, and Stella Maris, which arrives at the beginning of December, comes heralded as a literary event. This is a designation that leaves me wary, since in my experience, literature itself is the event. What I’m referring to is the trim of a sentence, the magic act of language, as much as (or even more than, if I am being honest) the necessities of plot. Perhaps that’s why the inconsistencies and loose ends that run throughout these books don’t especially bother me, even though they also must be taken into account.

The Passenger grows out of one such instance: a plane crash involving a private jet, found nearly intact underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, with nine bodies inside. At the site, we meet Bobby Western, a salvage diver who has landed in New Orleans, not as a way station so much as a place of last resort. Bobby has a complicated history; his father was a physicist who worked with J. Robert Oppenheimer to develop the atomic bomb, and his younger sister Alicia (formerly Alice) is a schizophrenic mathematical savant with whom he may or may not be in love.

The matter of incest will be disturbing to readers: certainly, it is to me. McCarthy addressed it also in his second novel, Outer Dark (1968), which begins with a sister giving birth to her brother’s child. That story unfolds, for the most part, as a pair of twinned narratives, not unlike these two new books. The Passenger, in fact, reads in places like a throwback to McCarthy’s early fiction—not only Outer Dark, but also 1973’s Child of God. These are the works that drew me to him as a reader, sagas characterized by moral bleakness, played out in a universe defined less by the possibility of redemption than it is by sin.

A similar sort of movement is at work here, beginning with the mystery of the sunken plane. Particular elements have gone missing: the pilot’s flight bag, the black box from the cockpit, and, most astonishingly, one of the passengers. For Bobby’s dive partner, a man named Oiler, the whys and wherefores are not his business. “I think that my desire to remain totally fucking ignorant about shit that will only get me in trouble is both deep and abiding,” he asserts. “I’m going to say that it is just damn near a religion.” Bobby, it turns out, is not nearly so wise. Pretty soon, he is being harassed by the federal government for reasons that are never fully clear.

That’s not the only hazy aspect of The Passenger; as the book progresses, the plane crash almost completely falls away. Instead, we get long conversation after long conversation—between Bobby and his criminal friend John Sheddan, between Bobby and himself. Interwoven are italicized sections in which Alicia engages with a variety of walking, talking hallucinations, led by a disfigured specter she calls the Thalidomide Kid. Is he real? Is he shadow? In the context of the novel, the answer can only be both. What McCarthy has in mind, after all, is to question the substance of reality, using quantum mechanics—the paradigm of choice not just for Bobby’s father, but also for Alicia and himself—as a lens. From that perspective, reality is by its nature uncertain, or more accurately, indeterminate: a “two-slit experiment,” Alicia explains in Stella Maris, which, “repeated ad whatever, shows that a single particle can go through two separate apertures at the same time.”

This is where the novel, or novels, can become heavy sledding; more than once, I found myself skimming discussions of Kurt Gödel or David Bohm. And yet, I want to argue, this is the point precisely. This is what McCarthy has in mind. Yes, The Passenger is a hot mess. (Stella Maris, on the other hand—which takes the form of a series of dialogues between Alicia and her therapist—is a much sharper work.) The lost plane remains lost, or submerged, more forgotten than unresolved. Time circles and bends back on itself. Experience is impossible to pin down.

The paradox, however, is that in this mess, we discover brilliance. The two are related, or perhaps we should say: inextricable. The only mystery worth pursuing is the cosmic one.

We might say McCarthy’s attention to such issues has to do with the fact that he is 89; The Passenger and Stella Maris are almost surely his final testament. But I believe that’s too easy, a misreading of the books. Instead, I want to posit a thought experiment, of the kind explored at the Santa Fe Institute, which the author has long frequented—and much like those Alicia likes to present.

What if the novels themselves represent a quantum intervention, each emerging from a single incident? The Passenger opens with a brief prologue in which, after her suicide, Alicia’s body is found frozen in the woods. Nearly 600 pages later, at the close of Stella Maris, she telegraphs that beginning (or conclusion). “Hold my hand,” she asks her therapist, “…because that’s what people do when they’re waiting for the end of something.”

I recognize that the books are distinct from each other, but I also want to consider how they intersect. If Alicia is dead throughout The Passenger and alive in Stella Maris, what if the same is true of Bobby in reverse?

There is some evidence to suggest this: As Stella Maris begins, Alicia has committed herself to a facility in Wisconsin after returning from Europe, where her brother, who was there racing Formula Two cars, lies in a coma after a wreck. It’s no coincidence that both novels involve the aftermath of an accident. It’s no coincidence that Alicia says, bluntly, “My brother’s dead.” If time is a circle and reality an illusion or a construct, why couldn’t both outcomes be equally the case at once? Maybe Bobby himself is the passenger of the first book’s title, a ghost reflecting on his own ghostness, as his sister is on hers.

It’s the novel as two-slit experiment, the novel as Schrödinger’s Cat. It’s the story of Bobby and Alicia, each imagined by the other, as a pair of death reveries. Or perhaps there’s only Alicia, dreaming both narratives into being as she freezes in the woods. “I have to say…” she tells her therapist, “that solipsism has always seemed to me a fairly inarguable position.”

Who am I to disagree?•


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