Book Review: The Passenger and Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy
How knowable is our reality? And how do we go on knowing that reality may not ever reconcile with what we understand?
The Passenger, published in October 2022, and Stella Maris, published just six weeks later in December, are the newest novels from Cormac McCarthy – and they may be his last, frankly, as he was born in 1933 and has otherwise not published a novel since The Road in 2006. I haven’t read McCarthy’s other works, but there’s no denying that these two books were a wild starting point. They center on the two Western siblings – there’s Bobby, the main focus in The Passenger, and there’s Alicia, the sole focus in Stella Maris. They are a duology, but it’s worth noting that each can technically be read alone (I wouldn’t recommend this, given how they play off of and into one another).
The Passenger takes place, mostly, in about 1980; Bobby is a salvage diver who used to study as a physicist, and after an odd job involving an underwater plane he finds himself a focus of the government. On the other hand, Stella Maris takes place in 1972; Alicia is a psychiatric patient who used to study pure math, and the entire book is a set of transcripts of conversations she has with her psychiatrist. In Bobby’s book, Alicia is dead. In Alicia’s book, Bobby is in a coma. In both of them, we learn about the Western family, their paternal grandmother’s inheritance for them, their views on reality, and (in their own very weird way) how these two siblings completed one another.
I would love for others to read them for two reasons. First, because there are some genuinely intriguing concepts (about physics, math, and what is/is not reality) that McCarthy plays with and explains through his characters. He himself likely doesn’t understand 100% of the mechanics his characters explain, but they’re presented much more lushly through this lens than they could be in any thesis or research document... There was something I found really pleasant about stretching my mind to absorb all this new-to-me information. Second (and selfishly), I wish others would read them and come talk about them with me – because, frankly, the books present more questions than answers. They are deliberately written this way, as McCarthy doesn’t provide the reader with many concrete conclusions. In a sense, they are books that take their readers on two wild journeys that end in the middle of nowhere with no answers to be found. I didn’t love this aspect of the books, but I also didn’t hate it – it fit with a lot of the issues the characters grappled with, and it seemed to represent life rather than a fictionalized version of it. Perhaps McCarthy’s endgame is to drive everyone crazy with this lack of answers, so some readers (like me) bother everyone else to read it, but there is still something haunting and unique about it.
If this duology sounds like it might be up your alley, the physical copies are available in Charles City Public Library’s collection, and BRIDGES and Libby offer both as ebooks (and The Passenger as an audiobook). Check them out in an electronic format by logging on to Libby, or come in to check our copy out today!