The Sunken Wreck of a Novel: A Review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger

Is Cormac McCarthy one of the last generation of novelists to possess a Style? Of course, all writers have a characteristic style, however modest; but few these days have a grand style, the kind that Kingsley Amis (I think I wrote about Nabokov) described as a high level of flutter and wow.

There are conversations about what I consider to be the “science of novelists”, which is not really meant to be understood

The great beasts of American literature have often aimed for prose that could not be confused with anyone else’s – Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow, Updike. Although there were always intensely-mannered novelists in England, they had less of a heroically manly quality – Firbank, Wodehouse, Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green. There are certainly novelists at work now with a fine command of style, like Peter Carey or Colson Whitehead, but few for whom style is everything, and most, like McCarthy, get by a bit.

Amis proposed an amusing critical game thinking about authors of this genre: write a sentence that they could never write. Her example was the impossibility for Ivy Compton-Burnett to write: “That’s a pretty dress you’re wearing. With McCarthy, the game is simpler. It’s almost impossible to imagine him writing the word “however.”

Its clauses are hammered out with brutal simplicity, and its invariable choice of conjunction is simply “and”. The things of the world pile up agglutinatively, piling up but hardly ever changing with a single “but,” or seeing how actions and facts affect what follows. The result has an irresistible and ferocious power; it is often compared to the prose of the Bible, or to Faulkner. To an English reader it bears an unexpected similarity to Henry Green in his most mannered style, the incantatory style that CM Doughty Deserted Arabia introduced. Much of this incantation is about scenes of hideous and senseless violence, as in the following passage from blood meridian:

The white man looked up, drunk, and the black one came forward and all of a sudden knocked his head off. Two thick dark blood and two thin cords rose like serpents from the stump of his neck and arced hissing in the fire. The head rolled to the left and stopped at the feet of the ex-priest where it lay with dismayed eyes. Tobin jerked his foot away, stood up, and stepped back. The fire smoked and blackened, and a gray cloud of smoke rose, and the columnar arches of blood slowly subsided until only the neck was gently bubbling like stew, and then that too subsided.

McCarthy’s antique Olivetti typewriter sold at auction in 2009 and fetched $254,500. I don’t wonder. I can’t imagine a more physical embodiment of a literary style: a machine where every key had to be pressed hard.

Style, like all styles, has its limits. In a series of highly acclaimed novels by blood meridian From there, McCarthy wrote about humanity at its most extreme, from the near-genocidal killing spree as America swept west in the 1850s, the anarchic improvisations chronicled in The border trilogy and a lavishly gruesome recreation of a Chaucer fable about money and death in There is no country for old people. His themes of unfettered manhood and violence, and his flippant expressions about race in particular, would cause serious trouble to any new American writer (“They were followed by packs of wolves, coyotes, Indians”). Nonetheless, McCarthy seems to be loved by more liberal readers, who, as far as I can tell, haven’t even complained about his use of the N-word. Sometimes that takes some ingenuity. The road takes place in an America after what is quite clearly a nuclear attack – “a long shear of light then a series of faint concussions” results in a relentless falling of dust. It has been repeatedly and bizarrely recast as a description of the possible effects of climate change. McCarthy is an extraordinarily simple and straightforward writer, but his impact on readers doesn’t come in simple forms.

His latest work, the first in a very long time, is an oddity: a sequence of two novels (a duology, I suppose). I will say right away that the second novel, Stella Maris, is a disaster. These are just sessions between one of the characters and a psychiatrist from the hospital. It’s a very bad idea to have a character analyzed in detail by a professional, the equivalent of the beginning novelist’s device of having a character stop in front of a mirror and describe their appearance. He adds very little to the first volume, and has the unfortunate effect of focusing his doubts. I will suggest putting Stella Maris completely aside.

The passenger has a pretty well-worn thriller premise. A commercial diver, Bobby Western, is sent to investigate a plane that has crashed at sea. He finds seven passengers and two crew members. (The Submarine Company inspires a repeat of a familiar McCarthy nightmare image, rising to Captain White’s head in a mescal jar in blood meridian, “hair flowing and eyes looking up in a pale face”.) There were, however, expected to be eight passengers. Back on land, the officials arrive. Soon, Western finds that state forces seem intent on placing him under arrest, with his assets seized by the IRS and imprisonment a real possibility. His dive buddy is killed in an unnecessary accident. Western goes on the run. But who was the eighth passenger?

At the same time, and only functioning as a periodically useful tool Deus Ex machine, is Bobby’s deceased sister, Alicia. He was a genius; it is suspected that she and Bobby were sexually related. She was also mad. Between the chapters of Bobby’s story, there are episodes of Alicia’s psychosis. She is visited by a band of hallucinated beings, led by a grotesque called the Kid. McCarthy’s dedication to using the most offensive language about minorities is paying off. These chapters are sour and repulsive, as the voice describes the Kid’s thalidomide-formed body: “Except of course they weren’t really hands.” Just flippers. Kind of like a seal. Other grotesques appear later, including a pair of “black-faced minstrels” saying “Yassuh yassuh”. They are quite fun in small doses. I rather enjoyed it when Alicia, after being subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, is visited by a blackened, burned, angry child – but small doses aren’t what we get.

The novel moves forward and blossoms into more general catastrophes, redeemed only by the continued power of this incantatory manner. The father of westerns, it seems, was in charge of working on the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. This revelation has some effects on the novel, none very admirable. A paragraph about the horrors of Hiroshima seems systematically added (“burning people crawled among the corpses like a horror in a vast crematorium”). There are conversations about what I’ve come to think of as “novelist science”, which isn’t really meant to be understood: “Many people thought that the S-matrix theory was a reasonable theory Promising, even. It’s just been replaced by chromodynamics. Alicia comes across as a child prodigy of a very routine kind – she’s a mathematician and a violin virtuoso (of course), recognized, at 13, as a World expert on baroque luthiers Couldn’t one of these fictional prodigies be really good at the bassoon for once?

A skilled editor might have cut out some of the grosser nonsense, like a diversion from the Kennedy assassination plots, unrelated to anything else. And there are surprisingly banal exchanges:

Make two, he said. Two what. Burgers. He takes a cheeseburger. OK. Cheeseburger. Sure. All? Yeah. Fries? Fries.

But here we are approaching a dangerous zone for the editor, as off-topic, time-wasting material seemingly unrelated to theme, plot, or argument provides tracts of compelling fluency.

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The glory of this novel comes from a succession of scenes in bars. Old drinking buddies who have nothing to do with Josh and tease and tell long polite tales to their half-drunk familiars: Long John, a traveling bar thesaurus (a guy as old as Pistol, Falstaff’s pal), Darling Dave, Seals, Bianca Pharaon and Debussy Fields, the wonderfully self-proclaimed transgender woman who has a thing for Bobby. The characters are beautifully realized, as good as VS Pritchett, and the reader feels a tender regret at John’s ending that is never a possibility in Alicia’s tragedy.

In these chapters, we glimpse a much more powerful and moving novel – one that, without the trappings of conspiracy and last-minute disaster rescues (in other words, the plot), brings the mysteries of the age, decay, death and missed opportunities for love developed through the rambling, drunken conversations overheard in a seedy bar. Like too many American novelists, McCarthy was deluded by the belief that he had to say something important. He should have thought that what lives forever is Miss Bates on Box Hill at Emma, or the anonymous young man in Our common friend who, trying to practice his French, says ‘Esker…?’, never to reappear. Debussy Fields could have been among the immortals. Now she’s sinking with a great wreckage of a book that talks over and over again about string theory, which killed Kennedy and everyone else. A waste of great talent.

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