Cormac McCarthy’s Unsettling Dream of a Novel

STELLA MARIS, by Cormac McCarthy

Artists tend to simplify their form with age, and the big novel has traditionally been, to paraphrase writers dead and living, no country for very old men. But this fall, Cormac McCarthy, who is pushing 90, has arrived with a pair of audacious linked novels, one a total banger and the other no embarrassment. If this is what it sounds like to be on your last legs, young writers should ask their server for whatever he’s having. If McCarthy’s voice is any indication, he’s still limber enough to outrun an aggrieved cheetah in his drawers and stocking feet.

The first novel, “The Passenger,” was published in October. It blends the rowdy humor of some of McCarthy’s early novels — I’m thinking especially of “Suttree” (1979) — with the parched tone of his more apocalyptic later work. It’s the first novel I’ve read in years that I feel I need to read three more times to fully understand, and that I want to read three more times simply to savor. It’s so packed with funny, strange, haunted sentences that other writers will be stealing lines from it for epigraphs, as if it were Ecclesiastes, for the next 150 years.

The second of these novels, “Stella Maris,” is out now. The title refers not to a stern-minded young woman on horseback, which is what you might imagine if all you knew of McCarthy was his Border Trilogy, but to a psychiatric hospital in Black River Falls, Wis.

It’s where 20-year-old Alicia Western, a doctoral candidate in mathematics at the University of Chicago, has checked herself in because she’s been hallucinating. Central among her visions is a shambolic dwarf with flippers and a bent sense of humor known as the Thalidomide Kid. Alicia is also carrying a plastic bag stuffed with $40,000, which she tries to give away to the receptionist.

Novels aren’t made, generally, to be filled entirely by talk. But that’s what “Stella Maris” is — transcriptions of therapy sessions with one of the hospital’s shrinks. This is a Tom Stoppardesque bull session. Does it work? Uh-huh. Does it work more fully if you’ve already read “The Passenger”? Absolutely.

The Essential Cormac McCarthy

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‘Blood Meridian’ (1985). Loosely based on historical events, the novel follows a fictional 14-year-old referred to only as “the kid” as he drifts through the Southwest. “‘Blood Meridian’ makes it clear that all along Mr. McCarthy has asked us to witness evil not in order to understand it but to affirm its inexplicable reality,” Caryn James wrote in her review for The Times.

‘All the Pretty Horses’ (1992). This best-selling book is an adventure story about a Texan boy who rides off with his buddy to Mexico. “The magnetic attraction of Mr. McCarthy’s fiction comes first from the extraordinary quality of his prose,” Madison Smartt Bell wrote in his review.

‘The Crossing’ (1994). The novel begins on a small cattle ranch in New Mexico in the last years of the Depression and follows Billy Parham, a teenage cowboy as he repeatedly crosses the border with Mexico. “‘The Crossing’ is a miracle in prose, an American original,” Robert Hass wrote in his review.

‘No Country for Old Men’ (2005). This fast, violent story centers on a stone-cold killer, a small-town sheriff and an average Joe who stumbles across a leather case filled with more than $2 million. “‘No Country for Old Men’ is as bracing a variation on these noir orthodoxies as any fan of the genre could expect,” Walter Kirn wrote in his review.

‘The Road’ (2006). The book is a despairing account of a boy and his father lurching across the cold, wretched, corpse-strewn, ashen landscape of a post-apocalyptic world. “Mr. McCarthy has summoned his fiercest visions to invoke the devastation. He gives voice to the unspeakable in a terse cautionary tale that is too potent to be numbing,” Janet Maslin wrote in her review.

Among the first things we learn in Alicia’s sessions is that she’s grieving the apparent death of her brother, Bobby, who’s been in a long coma since a car-racing accident in Italy. Alicia and Bobby share a cursed inheritance; their father was a physicist on the Manhattan Project. They’re a high-voltage combination. They share a genius for math — there are extra wires in their brains — and are so close that incest is a simmering sub-theme in both novels.

If “Stella Maris” is Alicia’s novel, “The Passenger” is Bobby’s. The earlier book is hard to describe in a few sentences, but here goes. Bobby is a laconic salvage diver who sees things he shouldn’t have. Before long, he is pursued not only by G-Men but, it seems, all the ghosts of the 20th century. He’s an oddly upper-class desperado, like Townes Van Zandt. The whole thing reads like a cosmic, bleakly funny John D. MacDonald thriller.

“The Passenger” is a great New Orleans novel. It’s a great food novel. (One important scene takes place over a platter of the chicken à la grande at Mosca’s.) For anyone who cares, it’s also a great Knoxville novel — Knoxville being where McCarthy spent most of his childhood. It’s filled with references to his earlier work. It’s a sprawling book of ideas — about mathematics, the nature of knowledge, the importance of fast cars — that also contains flatulence jokes. It slips into pretentiousness only to slip right back out again. McCarthy knows that we know that he knows that he can lay it on thick.

“Stella Maris” is, by comparison, a small and frequently elegiac novel. It’s best read while you are still buzzing from the previous book. Its themes are dark ones, and yet it brings you home, like the piano coda at the end of “Layla.”

More on Cormac McCarthy

This fall, the writer Cormac McCarthy returns with his first two novels since his 2006 book “The Road.”

  • Interlinked Works: “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris,” his new books, are a thematic and stylistic departure for the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Read an excerpt from “The Passenger” here.
  • Tackling Thorny Ideas: For decades, the novelist steeped himself in esoteric subjects like quantum physics and the nature of consciousness. Now those obsessions are seeping into his fiction.
  • Early Interviews: Between 1968 and 1980, the famously private McCarthy spoke with several small newspapers, describing his literary influences and his approach to writing.
  • From the Archives: In 1992, the writer sat down with The Times ahead of the publication of his novel “All the Pretty Horses.”

A lot of what Alicia wants to talk about is mathematics; numbers filled her up, only to scour her out. She’s largely abandoned the practice. She pushed equations until they led into chasms instead of bridges; they bent into witchcraft. McCarthy’s own late-life interest in physics is everywhere apparent. Here’s Alicia:

No one in the real world talks the way Alicia does — she’s seeing with her third eye, flexing her middle finger at the world, rocking her family’s thundersome legacy — but they might if they could. She lays down the cataclysmic one-liners.

McCarthy is an inveterate ham, so all this is cut with humor. Alicia is touchy about coming from Wartburg, Tenn., which is about an hour outside Knoxville. She describes a deranged uncle who has taken to defecating in hard-to-reach places, like inside the ceiling lamp in the kitchen.

Alicia toys with her shrink. It’s as if she’s breathing on a car window and drawing flowers and skulls in the condensation. Alicia also happens to be suicidal. She’s no longer at a safe distance from her own epistemological nihilism. If she had an “off” switch she would have flicked it.

McCarthy being McCarthy, Alicia has done the hard thinking about suicide. One of this book’s bravura passages is her extended analysis of how miserable it would be to try to kill yourself by drowning. The most moving moments in “Stella Maris” braid her feelings for her brother, which go through her like a spear, with a sense of intellectual futility.

Reading “Stella Maris” after “The Passenger” is like trying to hang onto a dream you’ve been having. It’s an uncanny, unsettling dream, tuned into the static of the universe. In “The Road” (2006), McCarthy put it this way: “Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave.”

STELLA MARIS | By Cormac McCarthy | 190 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $26

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