It’s telling of the low quality of major-media literary criticism that Cormac McCarthy’s new masterpiece has yet to be adequately recognized. The Passenger and Stella Maris, a conjoined new work by the 89-year-old author, comes 16 years after his last publication, the post-apocalyptic epic The Road. The new books are ambitious, impressively different from his previous work. They are structured with great elegance and originality, funny, at times surprisingly (and terrifyingly) light—and layered with enough puzzles and resonances to occupy a reader indefinitely.

“It is the product of a writer at the peak of his powers.”

This work may be McCarthy’s greatest. It is the product of a writer at the peak of his powers taking his most explicit approach to his lifelong themes. That it has so far been under-appreciated—and the reasons for that—only underline its importance.

The framing story for The Passenger, published in October, and Stella Maris, published on Tuesday, is a twisted romance. A pair of star-crossed siblings, in forbidden love with each other, engage in a kind of double-suicide. In the first volume, brother Bobby Western has woken up from a coma to discover that sister Alicia, believing him lost and suffering from what might be termed chronic mental illness, has killed herself.

The Passenger grapples with Bobby’s response to Alicia’s death. His chapters are fronted by Alicia segments that go back in time, starting with the onset of her mental illness and ending with her decision to kill herself. The second volume, Stella Maris, starts where The Passenger’s Alicia sections leave off, with her self-commitment to a mental hospital just prior to her suicide. Stella Maris is written entirely in dialog between Alicia and her doctor in the mental hospital, and ends on the eve of her actual suicide. The chronological loop between the two books is beautiful in itself, and the cockeyed structure is like nothing I have encountered in literature.

Within this frame, the unfolding events defy the conventions of traditional narrative in hunt of bigger game. The story starts with a gorgeous set-piece of Bobby investigating a downed plane while working as a salvage-diver. Everyone is dead, but a passenger and various items are missing. No one could have escaped a locked plane on the ocean floor, yet someone has. Shortly thereafter, mysterious investigators start harassing Bobby, his fellow-diver is killed under suspicious circumstances, and soon enough he is on the run. It could be the set-up for a thriller, but it isn’t. Plot strands peter out. Antagonists aren’t developed. Much of the text is devoted to Bobby’s daily living. The “passenger” we are searching for is consciousness itself, and the thriller-question posed is metaphysical: What is the human mind, what is it doing here, and what escapes—if anything—when the plane goes down?

Bobby, to some extent, represents the raw material of life—his character is the one busy living—while Alicia is the intellect tasked with figuring it out. She is a mathematician, portrayed as possibly the greatest genius of her time, and is in pursuit of speculations we are told could crack the code of the universe. These are tantalizing as far as the lay-person reader can follow them. Naturally, she has her own “passenger” (read: consciousness). Attempting to describe something will change it, we’re told, and Alicia may have done that to herself. McCarthy has personified her damaged consciousness as a hallucination of a foul-mouthed, deformed, wise-cracking child figure called the Thalidomide Kid, who is possibly at work for mysterious powers, and whose main activity is orchestrating a minstrel side-show of other characters who appear and disappear at will. Alicia’s sections in The Passenger are centered on her scenes with the Kid, who, like consciousness itself, is there when he chooses to be, whether she wants him or not, and is frustratingly obtuse about explaining himself.

During these conversations, Alicia is chronically depressed, and the Kid tries to help her. He is often abusive—it’s how our minds often treat us, alas—but there is tenderness, too, and a stubborn workaday commitment to her. As an invention and metaphor, the Kid is wonderful. I loved the nutsy quality of his antics. At one point, she attempts to have electroshock therapy to rid herself of him and wakes up in the recovery room with “a rubber biteguard in her mouth” to find “the cauterized horts”—her word for the hallucinations, from “cohorts”—who “in their charred and blackened rags stood smoking at her bedfoot. Dusted with ash but faintly luminous for that.” “‘Cute,’” the Kid says. “‘Really fucking cute.’” I laughed, and I was supposed to.

I also laughed, in a meta kind of way, at the Kid’s endless rummaging in the attics and basements of the language for wordplay, high and low. The ability to find humor in mistakes and juxtapositions is a weird but essential quality of the human mind, and to the extent that McCarthy finds joy anywhere, it’s here. Given the writer’s age, this may be his last book, and given his dark views on humanity and the seriousness of the overall inquiry, it is a pleasure to watch him enjoying himself. Or maybe the Kid’s puns and mistakes just represent Alicia’s brain damage. That, too, is gallows humor.

Lightness, in McCarthy, exists only to better see the dark. As anyone familiar with his work will guess, he doesn’t have happy answers to the large questions. The exploration of what we are immediately stumbles into how we behave, and into our penchant for annihilation. The books are set in the 1980s, an unusually contemporary time for McCarthy. Bobby and Alicia are the children of a (fictional) scientist-father who worked on the atomic bomb, and a teenage mother who was employed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory doing the scut-work of cleaning uranium.

For McCarthy, the West bears moral responsibility for the bomb like an unwanted inheritance. The vague thriller-plot investigation establishes just the right aura of existential culpability on this front. And the books’ obsession with machinery and technology, explored in various ways, posits the human mind’s urge to create such things as a fundamental drive. The same mental facility that leads men to build race cars (racing cars is another profession of Bobby’s), and lay pipe on the ocean floor (a skill of the friend who is killed), leads them to build bombs and drop them on other people. If we haven’t destroyed ourselves through nuclear war yet, McCarthy thinks it’s only a matter of time. As one of Bobby’s friends says, “the horrors of the past lose their edge, and in the doing they blind us to a world careening towards darkness beyond the bitterest speculation.”

The ultimate question is whether such evil comes from within us, or from an outside source, and how anyone is supposed to live in its shadow. McCarthy trafficks in religion. His characters don’t believe, but they would like to. Their author takes God seriously enough to establish his absence, and to use the Catholic tradition as another conceptual superstructure.

“Stella Maris,” for example, is Latin for  “Star of the Sea,” one of the titles of the Virgin Mary, with whom the character of Alicia is symbolically linked. (If there can be any doubt, when an unidentified character finds her frozen corpse at the beginning of _The Passenger, the text _runs: “He bowed his head. Tower of Ivory, he said. House of Gold”—two other traditional titles of the Mother of God.) But Alicia’s behavior makes her an anti-Mary—her scientific inquiry and her suicide are the opposite of Mary’s submission to God’s will. That this anti-Mary has a symbolic “child,” and what he may be, offers many ticklish possibilities for contemplation. McCarthy’s culminating metaphor for the presence of evil is also religious, and involves a “Judas hole”—the gate that Judas stepped through to betray Christ. The author has used the term before, as early as All The Pretty Horses (1992).

It’s a disappointment, but not a surprise, that critical reception for these books has so far been muted. A few perceptive souls have caught the extraordinary quality of the writing. But, as the Kid says in one scene “Core questions can make you look stupid.” (A few beats later, the Kid asks Alicia, “Where was I?” She replies, “Looking stupid.”) Contemporary literature is by and large not concerned with God or metaphysics, and reviewers have neither the theology nor the history to engage with this work. And certainly no one has the math. One review characterized Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “an atrocity that might have stopped a bigger atrocity”—a grade-school version of events that is highly contested and that misses McCarthy’s moral framework.

The two novels also lack the discussion of personal identity and fulfillment that substitutes for philosophical inquiry and plot in our day and age. Alicia and Bobby, from this impoverished standpoint, are unrealistic. Few people want to recognize, as McCarthy does, that first things are realistic, including evil, including God. His suggestion that we bear responsibility for our violence and sins and bombs and wars—I’d say including the nuclear flirtation we are currently pretending is “for peace”—is less popular still. To misunderstand these books is to miss the bleakness and the haunting beauty of the “eucharist” (McCarthy’s term) that Alicia offers with her lonely death, and to miss Bobby’s gift as he departs singing on his bier, which is McCarthy’s parting gift, as well.

The old master is also singing. Let’s listen to him.

Valerie Stivers, a Compact columnist, cooks from literature for The Paris Review.

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