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19 October 2022

The Passenger: The phantom world of Cormac McCarthy

In The Passenger, his first novel for 16 years, the great American writer offers a study of living without answers.

By John Gray

“Habits of two million years’ duration are hard to break… The unconscious seems to know a great deal. What does it know about itself? Does it know that it’s going to die… And is it really so good at solving problems or is it just that it keeps its own counsel about the failures? How does it have this understanding which we might well envy?”

This passage comes from an essay, “The Kekulé Problem”, by Cormac McCarthy, which was published in Nautilus, a science magazine, in April 2017. The essay’s title refers to the German chemist August Friedrich August Kekulé (1829-96), who recounted discovering the ring-like shape of the benzene molecule after having a daydream of a snake swallowing its own tail, a symbol of the ouroboros – an image of renewal and rebirth in ancient Egyptian mythology.

As McCarthy frames it, the Kekulé problem is why the chemist’s unconscious mind didn’t simply tell him: “The molecule is in the form of a ring.” McCarthy’s answer is that language is a capacity that evolved recently. Throughout its evolutionary prehistory, humankind was guided by its prelinguistic animal brain, which continues to convey its messages to us in dreams, pictures and images: “There is a process here to which we have no access. It is a mystery opaque to total blackness.” The essay reflects discussions McCarthy had over many years at the Santa Fe Institute, an interdisciplinary research centre dedicated to the study of complexity in physical and social systems, which he has been visiting since the 1990s and where he is now a trustee.

It is hardly surprising that McCarthy is interested in the Kekulé problem. His books are an unrelenting struggle to say the unsayable. The sonorous cadences of Blood Meridian (1985) and the bone-dry sentences of No Country for Old Men (2005) are texts that use all the devices of language in order to convey experiences it cannot express. His last novel, The Road (2006), was an attempt at expressing the ineffable desolation of a post-apocalyptic planet and the grief of those who live in its ruins. Critics have detected the influence on him of Faulkner and Hemingway, but this is to understate his achievement. His new novel, The Passenger, shows that McCarthy belongs in the company of Melville and Dostoevsky, writers the world will never cease to need.

[See also: The secret world of Mick Herron]

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Born in 1933 and having grown up in a middle-class family of Irish Catholics in a poor part of Knoxville, Tennessee, McCarthy dropped out of university and spent some years in the US Air Force. He has not surrendered to regular employment, or taken part in literary life. A rare interview in a 1992 New York Times profile by the art critic Richard B Woodward reported that when a local newspaper held a dinner in his honour, he courteously declined. He has not taught literature or given lectures. Before he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, an unconditional grant offered to persons of outstanding abilities, in 1981, he lived sparely, with long periods in what others might call poverty, devoting himself to writing.

His novels have been criticised because they contain much violence, as if this reflected some kind of morbidity in his work. In the New York Times interview he responds that it is the denial of violence in human life that is morbid: “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this idea are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom.”

He is unflinching in depicting human behaviour in its ugliest forms. A short, neglected novel, Child of God (1973), deals with a serial killer, whose crimes are described in all their savagery as being recognisably human. In The Passenger a Vietnam veteran recalls flying out over the jungle and seeing elephants in clearings. Trying to protect the females and their children, the bulls would raise their trunks and challenge the gunships. The flyers responded by firing off rockets at them: “We never missed. And it would blow them up. They’d just fucking explode.” The veteran says he feels sorry for what he did. “They hadn’t done anything. And who were they going to see about it?… That’s what I regret.” But why did he do it? Is there an answer?

The Passenger is a study in living without answers. The traveller of the title is the missing tenth body in a sunken jet that crashed off the coast of New Orleans. The underwater wreckage is examined by the professional diver Bobby Western, a former mathematician and the son of a physicist who worked with Robert Oppenheimer devising the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Visiting Nagasaki after the war with a team of scientists, Bobby’s father found “everything was rusty… There were burnt-out shells of trolleycars standing in the streets… Seated on the blackened springs the charred skeletons of the passengers with their clothes and hair gone… The living walked about but there was no place to go.”

Diving with a colleague to inspect the jet, Bobby finds the other nine passengers and crew buckled into their seats, their hair floating and their eyes “devoid of speculation”. The pilot’s flight bag and the plane’s black box cannot be found. Following the dive, Bobby is followed and questioned by men carrying badges; his rooms are ransacked, his car is taken away, his passport confiscated and his bank account closed. He goes on the run, ending up in a beach hut, wrapped in an old army blanket reading physics – “old poetry” – and trying to write letters to his schizophrenic sister Alicia, also a former mathematician, who died by suicide in an asylum many years previously. (A coda to The Passenger, Stella Maris, dealing with Alicia – the first novel McCarthy has written with a woman as its central protagonist – will be published later this year.) Walking the tide-line at dusk, Bobby looks back at his bare footprints filling with water, “then the sudden darkness fell like a foundry shutting down for the night”.

[See also: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History at 30]

A blurring of barriers between private visions and consensus realities marks many of the episodes recounted in The Passenger. Bobby’s sister is regularly visited by a djinn, the Thalidomide Kid, a damaged creature with “flippers” that comments on her behaviour, sometimes in metaphysical terms: “To the seasoned traveller a destination is at best a rumour… The real issue is that every line is a broken line. You retrace your steps and nothing is familiar. So you turn around to come back only now you’ve got the same problem going the other way. Every worldline is discrete and the caesura ford a void that is bottomless.”

The phantasm has something of the mocking quality displayed by the devil as he appears in Ivan’s delirium in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. A figure who arrives promising some sort of enlightenment, when the Kid departs, he leaves the scene looking more crepuscular and impenetrable than it did before he arrived. Many of the book’s scenes have a numinous, enigmatic quality that lingers in the mind. If The Passenger was a film, it would be made by David Lynch.

As he often does in his novels, McCarthy uses dialogue as a device, pointing to things that cannot be spoken. Many of these exchanges occur in the course of meals in New Orleans bars. In one of them, a sardonic, gin-drinking, cigar-smoking friend to whom Bobby has confided some of his difficulties observes: “We don’t move through the days, Squire. They move through us. Until the last cruel crank of the ratchet… It’s just that the passing of time is irrevocably the passing of you… Ultimately there is nothing to know and no one to know it… It’s an odd place, the world.”

As his friend is dying he sends Bobby a letter via one of the bars they frequented. He expresses the hope that in any afterlife there may be a waterhole where they could meet again. After the friend dies Bobby is visited “one last time” by his shade. Towards the end of their conversation the friend asks: “And what are we? Ten per cent biology and 90 per cent nightrumour.” Then the spectre vanishes.

Bobby fails to discover the identity of the missing passenger, or why “the Feds” have him under surveillance. Like others in his time, he is a cipher in an illegible history. A lawyer who offers to help him change his identity muses on the JFK assassination, convinced the evidence was tampered with. Lee Harvey Oswald was a patsy, a passenger “waiting for a ride that was never coming”. If there is a thread running throughout McCarthy’s novels, it is an absence of explanation.

After Bobby has moved to a shack on the dunes near Bay St Louis he is visited by the Kid. He tells Bobby his sister knew that in the end you can’t know anything: “You can’t get hold of the world. You can only draw a picture. Whether it’s a bull on the wall of a cave or a partial differential equation it’s all the same.” They debate whether there is an afterlife. Trudging along the shore, Bobby asks the Kid if he is an emissary. The Kid replies, “Of what?” Soaking and chilled, Bobby falls to his knees. The loss of knowing that his beloved sister died alone is beyond any other loss and unendurable. Looking up, he sees the small and shambling figure of the Kid receding down the rain-swept beach. Soon the djinn is gone.

In “The Kekulé Problem”, McCarthy wrote: “To put it as pithily as possibly – and as accurately – the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.” This may seem a reductively materialist world-view, but in the most advanced sciences, matter is a ghostly affair, not wholly distinguishable from subjective experience. As one of Bobby’s lunch partners puts it: “Should science by some miracle forge on into the future it will uncover not only new laws of nature but new natures to have laws about… Some of the difficulty with quantum mechanics has to reside in the problem of coming to terms with the simple fact that there is no such thing as information in and of itself independent of the apparatus necessary to its perception. There were no starry skies prior to the first sentient and ocular being to behold them. Before that all was blackness and silence.”

In the elusive, indeterminate world of quantum physics, dialogues with the dead and with creatures that never existed may have a certain reality. Materialism of this kind is consistent with religion, though not of a sort that promises any redemption. According to Christianity, all that has been lost will finally be returned. There is a harmony concealed in life’s conflicts, a secret triumph in our sorrows and defeats, which will finally be revealed. Before Christianity, Plato promised a perfect realm beyond the shadows of the Cave. Monotheism and classical philosophy are both of them theodicies, attempts to justify evil and injustice as necessary parts of an unknown order in things.

The religion intimated in The Passenger is an older faith, in which there is no theodicy and nothing is revealed. As he blows out his lamp in his shack on the beach thinking still of his sister, Bobby knew that “on the day of his death he would see her face and he could hope to carry that beauty into the darkness with him, the last pagan on earth, singing softly on his pallet in an unknown tongue”.

The Passenger
By Cormac McCarthy
Picador, 400pp, £20

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This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency