Cormac McCarthy’s first novel in almost twenty years begins with a hunter discovering the body of a young woman who has hanged herself. This discovery is rendered in beautiful prose that is at once stark and metaphysical, his unmistakable trademark.
The shape of her coat lay dusted in the snow where she’d dropped it and she wore only a white dress and she hung among the bare gray poles of the winter trees with her head bowed and her hands turned slightly outward like those of certain ecumenical statues whose attitude asks that their history be considered. That the deep foundation of the world be considered where it has its being in the sorrow of her creatures.
McCarthy is considered one of America’s greatest living novelists for good reason. His output of nearly sixty years explores, with irresistible prose, the deep foundations of the world and the sorrow of her creatures. Goodness and evil. Free will and fate. Life and death. And above all: being and nothingness. Tales that plumb the depths of evil, like No Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian. Tales that make you ache for goodness and beauty, like All the Pretty Horses and The Road. Tales written in prose that begs you to savour it as if it were your final meal.
The Passenger and its companion novel, Stella Maris, are no exception and are worth the wait. But there is also something a bit different going on here. McCarthy, whose work lives inside cosmological questions, seems here to favour a particular kind of answer to the deep mysteries of our existence. Not a final answer, mind you. McCarthy has never been a nihilist, though he is often misread that way. But he seems to be, well, more certain about what could be called quantum-level uncertainty: the radical, foundational mystery that is quantum reality. These novels enact the so-called measurement problem—that the act of observing a quantum object somehow determines its existence and destiny. As the physics-trained protagonist Bobby Western puts it, “there is no information independent of the apparatus necessary to its perception.” Consciousness (and the unconscious) is central, not peripheral, to reality itself.
This idea is irresistible to a novelist, of course. Scholarly books will be written about these novels’, ahem, entanglement with quantum theory. McCarthy has long been a part of the Santa Fe Institute, dialoguing with physicists, reading books about consciousness, plumbing the depths of number. His essay on language and the unconscious published in 2017 emerged in large part from conversations with scientists. A ton of that reflection is incorporated into these novels, and not in a superficial way. If McCarthy indeed favours what I have called quantum-level uncertainty, two intriguing interpretive possibilities emerge. It could mean that God’s consciousness sustains the world that God created, and human beings are pilgrims on the way toward that ultimate reality, life. Or it could mean that consciousness itself is the greatest reality, and particular human beings are mostly unconscious passengers with no control over our ultimate destiny, death. It would be no surprise for a McCarthy novel not to even hint at the pilgrim idea. But what’s different here is that McCarthy grounds this narrative in the passenger thesis. In short, he seems to want us to embrace the thin hope that narrative as witness isn’t just a good thing; it’s the only thing that keeps us from falling into the abyss of nothingness and despair.
I write this reluctantly. I have argued that The Road is Christ-haunted—deeply theological in a way possible only if created goodness is an ultimate reality. The Passenger and Stella Maris haunt me in a different way. They make me wonder: What might it mean if one of our greatest living novelists stares into reality as far as he can and sees only ghosts of human meaning making?
What might it mean if one of our greatest living novelists stares into reality as far as he can and sees only ghosts of human meaning making?
Since The Passenger begins with the suicide that is the central concern of both novels, it spoils nothing to give the basic plot. McCarthy tells the story of Alicia and Bobby Western, brilliant children of a man who worked with Oppenheimer on the atomic bomb. They are haunted by this history. They are too smart for their own good—and fatefully in love with each other. Alicia develops schizophrenia, which causes her to hallucinate the “Thalidomide Kid” and his cohorts. The novel primarily alternates between depicting their harassment of her (full of dark humour) and following her brother ten years after her suicide. Bobby is a salvage diver, and part of his story includes his dive into the wreckage of a private jet that was supposed to have nine passengers but had only eight bodies in it. Having witnessed this mystery puts him on the lam. We follow him as he wanders all over New Orleans, parts of the Midwest, and eventually Spain, a deeply haunted man.
The idea of all of us as unwitting passengers through life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, is everywhere here, not just in the missing-passenger plot. When the Kid and the cohorts (the “horts”) visit Alicia, she wants to know how they got there, where they came from. The Kid, who never addresses Alicia by her correct name, replies that they arrived on the bus.
You didnt come on the bus.
Christ Clarissa. The driver opens the door and you climb aboard. How hard is that?
Were there other people on the bus?
Sure. Why not?
And no one said anything?
You didnt get any funny looks?
Could they see you?
The other passengers?
Who knows? Jesus. Probably some could and some couldnt. Some could but wouldnt. Where’s this going?
Well what kind of passenger can see you?
How did we get stuck on this passenger thing?
I just want to know.
Ask me again.
What kind of passenger is it that can see you.
I think I know what we’ve got here. Okay. What kind of passenger?
The Kid stuck what would have been his thumbs in his earholes and waggled his flippers and rolled his eyes and went blabble abble abble. She put one hand over her mouth.
We are in the land of deep metaphysical query. Who are we? Do we have eternal souls? And here: Where do our ideas about ourselves come from, especially the scary ones? Since Alicia hallucinates the horts, these passengers are products of her unconscious. To query them is to explore the origin of her thoughts, especially her urge to “shut off the lights and call it a life.” She is troubled by the fact that humans cannot escape consciousness, memory, the fact of having lived, and death. And most of all, the fact of having been passengers in someone else’s narrative. Life for her is passage with no clear destination. As she had written in her journal: “to the seasoned traveler a destination is at best a rumor.”
Bobby’s sections highlight that he also thinks of himself as only a passenger. His life has been shaped, even led, by others. Primarily by his sister, with whom he finds himself in love, but also by the mysterious and unidentified government pursuers. McCarthy underscores his lack of direction with irony: Bobby was a Formula 2 race-car driver—a driver, that is, without a destination—until he was involved in a near-fatal accident. A later conversation with a friend of his confirms that this is how he views his life. “I know you dont believe in God. But you dont even believe that there is a structure to the world. To a person’s life.”
Does all this mean that McCarthy thinks of humans as random and ephemeral biological entities passing through life for a short time, acting and reacting, our only real freedom being the dark choice to exit the stage for good? I think it might, because this thesis best explains a novel full of references to quantum theory—and layers of jokes about it. The siblings were named Alice and Bob by their father, a reference to the use of these character names for thought experiments regarding action and reaction of agents. That Alice and Bob appeared first in cryptography is no small thing, since within code-cracking Alice and Bob represent “the links between the mathematical variables and the people.” When the hunter finds Alicia on the first page of the novel, he also finds a gold chain with a steel key and a white-gold ring—which he slips into his pocket. The key never appears again. Alicia’s secrets remain undecoded. Furthermore, several of the real physicists mentioned in the novel used Alice and Bob in papers about quantum superposition, which has to do with the way a wave behaves, and from which we get Schrödinger and his famous cat. Schrödinger’s cat was a thought experiment written to explain the paradox involved in the measurement problem that I mentioned above: while the cat is in an unobserved system, it is somehow both alive and dead until an act of observation “forces” one outcome over the other.
As I have said, quantum paradox is irresistible to a novelist. McCarthy, like the short-story writer Ted Chiang, actually understands this stuff, by which I mean, he knows that it cannot be fully understood. Richard Feynman’s 1967 quip is still true: “I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics.” I know only enough about quantum theory to get some of the jokes and all of the vertigo. I know enough about quantum theory to get that Stella Maris, the second novel in the set, might indicate that it is Bobby who has died instead of Alicia. It could even be that the novels depict different universes within the multiverse, each with the same ultimately entropic end: all is random, and all is loss.
It is impossible to say anything definitive about this—and again, that seems to be the point. McCarthy’s work has always been a cosmological mash-up. But it still feels to me that “Long John” Sheddan’s outlook is closest to McCarthy’s. When Sheddan haunts Bobby at the end of the novel, he says this:
Where the substance of a thing is uncertain business the form can hardly command more ground. All reality is loss and all loss is eternal. There is no other kind. And that reality into which we inquire must first contain ourselves. And what are we? Ten percent biology and ninety percent nightrumor.
We’ve seen these ideas from McCarthy before. The “ninety percent nightrumor” is most likely the mysterious work of the unconscious, a theme that pervades every novel he has written. But this novel is structured around loss, especially the loss of consciousness and memory. These characters live inside an entropic system. When the ten percent of us that is biology has decayed, what is really left?
McCarthy’s choice—and it is a choice—is to invert the conventional narrative structure of a character’s growth or discovery. While his other novels nod to the idea, these novels fully assent to these lyrics from the Talking Heads: “We’re on a road to nowhere / Come on inside / Takin’ that ride to nowhere / We’ll take that ride.”
My first time through these novels I happened to be teaching Josef Pieper’s book On Hope. It is a perfect foil. Passengers in an entropic system are the opposite of pilgrims on a journey. Pieper insists that to be created beings means that we are fundamentally status viatoris: on the way. We are either on the way to beatitude—eternal life with God—or we resist that idea and fall into despair or presumption. For Pieper, this is the nature of reality, not a convenient fiction. Thus, hope becomes a question of the will, not of belief. “Both he who hopes and he who despairs choose these attitudes with their will and let them determine their conduct,” he writes.
If our lives are ten percent biology and ninety percent fading human consciousness, there is no will. There is only witness. First, we witness multiple random situations of action and reaction, and ultimately we witness loss. We can construct fictions of hope to keep us alive, as the man’s wife tells him in The Road. But eventually the world’s memory of anyone who ever walked here fades, and there is only loss.
McCarthy presents us with a picture of the collective imagination of a Western world that is surely, steadily, and finally letting go of hope.
McCarthy’s fictional world has always been haunted by witness to—and fear of—loss. For him, to live in the Western world today is to live in the terror created by two possibilities that can never be proved: God awaits us on the other side of this life, or there is nothing there but silence. If there is silence, then our capacity to destroy ourselves and this earth must be our ultimate concern. As one character puts it in The Passenger, the “bomb is lying doggo for the present. But it wont stay that way.” Despite her protestations to the contrary, Alicia is so troubled by her father’s contribution to that capacity that “what she believed ultimately was that the very stones of the earth had been wronged.” The reference to Luke 16, with its revelation of a redeemer absent in McCarthy’s world, is clear: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Alicia looks into the abyss and seems to conclude that, in the face of such terror, her life can mean nothing. So she chooses passage to ultimate silence. She leaves Bobby with crippling grief and a fading memory of her. When there is no one left to remember her, she, too, will be gone. Sheddan again, at the end of the novel:
The world’s truth constitutes a vision so terrifying as to beggar the prophecies of the bleakest seer who ever walked it. Once you accept that then the idea that all of this will one day be ground to powder and blown into the void becomes not a prophecy but a promise. So allow me in turn to ask you this question: When we and all our works are gone together with every memory of them and every machine in which such memory could be encoded and stored and the earth is not even a cinder, for whom then will this be a tragedy?
With no one left to witness—no apparatus for perception—there can be no comedy or tragedy. Just the abyss of empty space.
McCarthy’s prose is so seductive it is easy to find yourself persuaded that this “terrifying vision” is, in fact, the world’s truth. But isn’t it equally true that if God’s creative consciousness is behind it all, the idea that all this will one day be redeemed (and indeed re-created) also becomes not prophecy but promise? While we walk here, we walk in uncertainty of what lies on the other side, an uncertainty that physics will never resolve. But we do make some kind of choice. In The Road, the man chooses to “carry the fire”—to not give up on life and love in spite of journeying in a landscape utterly devoid of it. This is the hope of the pilgrim. It is not to hope against death but rather to hope in spite of it. Josef Pieper explains that “the ‘way’ of man leads to death as its end, but not as its meaning.”
On the one hand, McCarthy’s terrifying vision is nothing new—it has been a feature of the arts since the advent of modernism. Faulkner. Joyce. Woolf. And Hemingway: “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.” We can, perhaps, take it or leave it. But on the other hand, McCarthy presents us with something not so easily dismissed: a picture of the collective imagination of a Western world that is surely, steadily, and finally letting go of hope. When that happens, we will be left only with noisy, meaningless movement, the endless creation and re-creation of narratives, the fictions we choose to live by. Noise that is the hallmark of the perpetually distracted, the ones who close their eyes so as not to be reminded that we are passengers on a road—to nowhere.