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 ... 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 ... 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.
At the human level, at the level of verisimilitude, these two companion novels are hardly serious. Perhaps McCarthy seeks to indemnify himself against the charge of authorial wish fulfillment by dooming his fantastical characters to early demises ... The new and welcome thing in The Passenger and Stella Maris is the lucidity of this bitter metaphysics. McCarthy’s earlier books were so shrouded in obscurity, rang with so much hieratic shrieking and waving, that it was perfectly possible to extract five contradictory theological ideas at once from their fiery depths ... These new novels flush McCarthy out of his rhetorical cover.
If you read the books in order, you might find Stella Maris...coldly underwhelming despite, or perhaps because of, the erudition of the twenty-one-year-old, debatably schizophrenic, suicidal math genius Alice Western ... McCarthy is not interested in the psychology of character. He probably never has been. He’s interested in the horror of every living creature’s situation. Brilliant, beautiful Alice is barely believable as a female human being. And why should she be? ... Alice is the sturdy vessel for McCarthy’s thinking. Perhaps too sturdy a vessel; one might prefer a bit of spillage, some froth, some fun.
Stella Maris is far more rigorously structured, and after its first page entirely in dialogue: transcripts of Alicia’s electrifying sessions with her last psychiatrist, Dr. Cohen ... I suppose you could read one without the other, The Passenger in particular. But I can’t imagine that anyone who finishes that book won’t want to go on. Each of them offers different bits of the family story, a detail in one making sense of a moment in the other, as though they were infiltrating each other ... The Passenger and Stella Maris are different, and a lot of the fun in reading them comes from watching McCarthy do something new.
They read less like novels than illustrations of a long-contemplated hypothesis—like elaborate thought experiments demonstrating the strangeness (to Mr. McCarthy, the nightmare) of a universe governed by quantum uncertainty ... Strikingly conceptual, and it works in complement with the existential intrigue of The Passenger, giving it a broader (if in nowise clearer) intellectual framework ... For all their exploration of rupture and loss, these novels do feel tightly bound—to each other as well as to Mr. McCarthy’s previous novels—by the elemental forces of style and theme. The author’s signature punctuation tics are still present ... I enjoyed these novels for their weirdness and originality, their intellectual provocations and the detective-like engagement they demand from their readers, who, quantum-like, bring them into reality. But my enjoyment was frustrated by the familiar feeling of being strong-armed into a predetermined lesson about the horror of existence.
Stranger and smarter than The Passenger, Stella Maris is also somehow darker ... Stella Maris doesn't care about not being a novel, and it shines because of it ... wild, profoundly sinister, and more a philosophical exploration and celebration of math-mysticism and the possibilities — and perhaps unknowability? — of quantum mechanics than a novel. Taken together, these two novels are a floating signifier that refuses to be pinned down.
Perhaps it will not bother you as it bothers me. Must the core of this book be a love story between an older brother and his younger sister? Couldn’t a writer with McCarthy’s capacious imagination conceive of an adult, independent woman who could serve as an equally powerful lost love?
In contrast to the weight of The Passenger, the slim Stella Maris, which reads like a two-character play without stage directions, can be read in one determined sitting ... Stella Maris reads more like an expansion of ideas explored in The Passenger than a book in and of itself. But because this is McCarthy, whose dialogue can be as transcendent as his descriptions, it’s still a welcome postscript.
Though promotional efforts suggest both works function as stand-alone novels or can be read together, the latter option should be seen not as a luxury but a necessity ... The result is that the novella is a trying exercise in free-form debate between two sides of the same mind. Taken on its own, it’s difficult to see how any but the most devoted of McCarthy’s readers would rank it among his best. But paired with The Passenger, the full payoff is unquestionably something remarkable.
Tonally complex — ominous, hilarious, sarcastic, sacred — countervailing weights to the intricacies of The Passenger, both enhancing and undermining what we think we know about the Westerns ... Despite the darkness ahead, The Passenger and Stella Mars crown a magnificent career that will guide us forward, for as long as the lights stay on.
... heavy but pleasurable, and together the books are the richest and strongest work of McCarthy’s career ... does not stand on its own and is best understood as an appendix to The Passenger ... Critics who have doubted McCarthy’s ability to write a female character must acknowledge that she is as idiosyncratically fucked-up as any of the protagonists in his previous oeuvre ... as a pair, The Passenger and Stella Maris are an achievement greater than Blood Meridian, his best earlier work, or The Road, his best recent one. In the new novels, McCarthy again sets bravery and ingenuity loose amid inhumanity ... These novels feel like McCarthy’s effort to produce such words, and to react to the dying of the light with Sheddan’s vigor rather than Bobby’s and Alicia’s despair. The results are not weakly flickering. They are incandescent with life.
It’s in...Stella Maris that McCarthy’s genius – and that of Bobby’s brilliant, doomed sibling Alicia, dead by suicide outside the Stella Maris mental hospital she called home – really shines ... Alicia is a singular creation, an incomparable genius who actually reads like one on the page and is in open conversation with schizophrenic hallucinations ... Readers looking for answers to the questions raised by The Passenger won’t find them here – only more questions, more pieces of an unsolvable equation McCarthy is posing about the universe and our place in it.
The official line from the publishers is that The Passenger and Stella Maris each stand alone, but don’t believe them. The Passenger would be maddeningly opaque without Stella Maris to elaborate on some of its most compelling plot threads, and Stella Maris would be dry as book binding without The Passenger to leaven its many philosophical arguments. Reading them separately would be a cramped and despairing experience ... There is something pleasingly, shockingly bare about Stella Maris after the lushness of The Passenger’s rich, haunted atmosphere ... McCarthy has stripped away all the flesh down to the bare bone, the part that he’s actually interested in talking about ... Writing women has never been McCarthy’s strong suit, and Alicia doesn’t exactly hold up as a rich and three-dimensional character. Her voice is appealingly spiky, but she’s more philosophical construct than whole human being. Yet halfway through Stella Maris, it becomes clear that she’s also an avatar for McCarthy himself, and for anyone who finds their unconscious mind doing their creative work for them ... Speaking of writing, it’s just as great here as you would expect ... Neither The Passenger nor Stella Maris is designed to be anyone’s gateway to Cormac McCarthy. They lack the visceral emotional intensity McCarthy can conjure at his best; they are pointedly spare and withholding. But taken together, they offer an intellectual experience that’s not quite like anything else out there, laced with the eerie beauty that only Cormac McCarthy can offer.
His most ambitious and challenging work in decades ... McCarthy is hunting big game and he’s brought out the big guns to hunt with. What he has not done is provide anything resembling a plot through which to reify and explore these ideas in narrative ... I have no problem with McCarthy stepping up to the void for a good long gander. What I take issue with is that these two novels together run nearly six hundred pages, and they hang fire on a host of questions that do have answers ... The Passenger succeeds on the vitality of McCarthy’s prose and the intensity of his vision. I have my quibbles with it, but basically it works. Stella Maris, the 'coda' or companion novel, is by contrast a waste of time. I read both novels twice and on the second run-through I read Stella Maris first, because the PR letter I got with my galley said that 'the books can be read separately, each enthralling as a stand-alone,' and I was curious to test the proposition—more fool me. Stella Maris has no value as a stand-alone novel ... As a coda it fails to meaningfully clarify, complicate, or reframe any of the myriad unanswered questions that The Passenger leaves us with. It is a work of utter redundancy and irrelevance.
Stella Maris is...not so much a book as it is a character transcription. But is this character compelling? Does she meet the impossibly high standard set for her in The Passenger? The answer to that question is yes and no — but I believe Stella Maris to be a greater achievement because the answer is not just a simple yes ... If Stella Maris were simply an extended portrait of a gifted intellectual, it would be an admirable book ... Yet Stella Maris is a much more complicated endeavor than a laudatory biography. The figure of Alicia both attracts and repels us in a way that simple description of her mathematical gifts could never accomplish ... What attracts us is the portrait of a genius that McCarthy convincingly constructs. What repels us is the pomposity that accompanies a true believer ... How lovely and how sad are the many complications that comprise the character of Alicia Western. And this is what makes Stella Maris a true work of literature.
Staggering ... It offers a few more clues, but mostly deepens the various mysteries on offer in the first novel ... It’s a rare thing to see a writer employ the tools of fiction in order to make a genuine contribution to what we know, and what we can know, about material existence. Put differently, the ideal audience for these books are Fields Medal recipients, but they’re still a privilege and a hoot for the rest of us to read. And if we can’t understand everything McCarthy is writing about, one suspects that he just might.
The Passenger and Stella Maris tackle dazzlingly fresh ground and are a welcome advancement in McCarthy’s preoccupations ... A taut novel of ideas ... Read together, The Passenger and Stella Maris are a fascinating diptych, bringing light and depth to each other. The mysteries and coincidences are legion, and mirrored moments are plentiful ... The results are staggering.
In a 2009 interview, McCarthy told The Wall Street Journal that he was working on a novel 'largely about a young woman,' and that he’d been 'planning on writing about a woman for 50 years.' If Stella Maris, the 200-page coda to The Passenger, is the product of all that planning, then it’s a disappointment ... As a work of fiction, and particularly as a close study of a female character, it doesn’t succeed. But as a window into a great writer’s intellectual preoccupations, Stella Maris is invaluable ... The book nicely complements some of the intriguing remarks McCarthy has made during his rare interviews and gives us further insight into him, if not quite into his female creation ... If the stories in The Passenger are supplemental in the best sense—they serve no purpose other than entertainment—then Stella Maris is a less welcome supplement. Though it enriches our understanding of McCarthy and his influences, it undercuts the pathos of the novel that preceded it.
While the Hemingway strain in McCarthy remains as evident as ever, Faulkner takes a back seat to more unlikely influences ranging from Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon to, weirdly, James Ellroy and even less reputable compatriots ... McCarthy isn’t known for his convincing female characters. Alicia is no exception, but he’s conceived of her as so intellectually freakish that it hardly matters ... Confusing, confused.
Without a working knowledge of The Passenger, Stella Maris would be utterly baffling and infuriating — as opposed to mostly baffling and infuriating ... At times, McCarthy’s worship for his creation brings to mind JD Salinger’s idolisation of his equally prodigious and gorgeous Glass family; at others, more disturbingly, Edgar Allan Poe’s idea that 'the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical subject in the world' ... Acknowledging that your book is boring doesn’t mean that it isn’t. And, even if the whole thing is done only for effect, it’s probably best if the effect in question isn’t to make us want to throw the book across the room.
McCarthy always pushes at the boundaries of literature to try to give us fresh perspectives on the human condition. In what might be the 89-year-old’s swansong, he melds literature into philosophy, as Alicia unpacks the fundamentals of existence ... If McCarthy is a writer of limitless ambition, Alicia is a very ambitious construction. It’s an open question, however, whether her off-the-scale attributes signal McCarthy’s lack of interest in creating a more relatable female protagonist ... A curious novel, but you have to love McCarthy for it. It is complex but affecting. Its author, as he approaches his tenth decade, gives a masterly demonstration of how with age comes not greater wisdom, but a greater awareness of its limits.
It is, whatever it is, quite remarkable. As with only a few other authors – Roberto Bolano, Brian Catling – it has the distinction of having given me bad dreams. Scratch that: nightmares. I mean that as a compliment.
The Passenger and its short 'coda', Stella Maris...are simply not good introductions to Cormac McCarthy’s work ... Nitpicking aside, these books are a moving final tribute to the panoply of thinkers who have provided the foundation for the wild and varied worlds of McCarthy’s fiction. They are, for all their harshness, pessimism and frenzy, the last of a stretch of deeply humble, occasionally elegiac novel.
Stella Maris is certainly a more open-ended book, and it’s an openness that casts a shadow back ... McCarthy’s bleak vision is tragic but not depressing, as it’s driven by an ambitious sense of experimentation and engagement with the American literary tradition that few writers today would dare, much less be capable of. And if it’s to be his final chapter it’s fitting he avoids signing off on a climactic note, preferring to watch the sun go down in style.
Alicia’s frank account of her reciprocated but unconsummated incestuous desire is undoubtedly the most moving (and disturbing) aspect of the novel ... Too many of these conversations, however, revolve around philosophical questions about the nature of truth, reality and existence, heavily laden with references to mathematicians, philosophers and scientific theories. Though giving readers the clearest picture yet of McCarthy’s philosophical commitments, these longueurs will test the patience of even the most devoted fans ... In dialogue form, McCarthy’s customary bleakness comes dangerously close to sounding like a second-rate Beckett play ... Stella Maris is a difficult novel to recommend on its own terms and should be the last of McCarthy’s works a newcomer should read. Despite all that, it gains such emotional power from the richness of its predecessor that it will satisfy any reader who found The Passenger compelling.
The apparently slighter sister-novel [to The Passenger], Stella Maris proves a better vessel for McCarthy’s lofty scientific concerns. Consisting purely of dialogue, it records Alicia Western’s DeLillo-esque conversations with a middle-aged, male psychiatrist at the titular mental institution in 1972, where she is diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Through these heady exchanges McCarthy thoroughly outs himself as the dark gnostic he always was – void-mystic and cartographer of a satanic dominion ... At base it’s an impressionistic treatise on the nature of reality, tracing the outlines of a dread architecture beyond the visible and the intuitive. The soaringly pretentious dialogue between a troubled autodidact (conveniently, Alicia has spent a decade reading several books a day and can remember all of it) and her awed shrink generates nihilist koans that double as jokes ... Whether or not the ominous physics and math-mysticism add up to a novel in the sense commonly understood – or enjoyed – is debatable. But it is something, not least the vehicle for a specifically novelistic kind of philosophising less concerned with establishing systems than with the dark fire of wild insight and forbidden revelation.
For a writer who spurns the conventions of punctuation, Stella Maris feels a lot like a full stop, a parting pronouncement on the whole sordid human experiment ... After 16 years of literary silence, McCarthy has produced a drought-busting, brain-vexing double act: first, a nihilistic vaudeville; now, its austere twin ... Women, I am repeatedly told, don’t like – don’t get – Cormac McCarthy. It’s the kind of patronising nonsense that gets levelled at us when we point out the converse: that McCarthy’s fiction doesn’t get – doesn’t like – women. When female characters do appear in his pages, they are cowards, victims and sexpots: sirenic doom-bringers, cheetah-owning dommes, simpering twits and bad mothers. It’s often possible to admire the Pulitzer prize winner despite his paper-thin girls (see also Roth, Updike, Mailer and all the other cocksure Americans). Not in this novel. Stella Maris is a transcript of Alicia’s therapy sessions. The book hangs on her voice, and that voice is preposterous ... Alicia is the character you’d invent if you set out to skewer McCarthy’s frontier-fawning machoism ... If you turned Stella Maris into a drinking game – a shot of Appalachian moonshine for every eye roll – you’d be hammered before the end of chapter one ... It would be funny if this book were not so certain of its own cleverness ... Alicia is less a character than a receptacle, a dumping ground for eight decades of snarled (and snarling) ideas. As her conversations with Dr Cohen deepen, she slips into McCarthy’s own narrative voice, with all its rococo cadences and tell-tale tics...It’s a grotesque kind of irony that the author’s most risible creation is the closest thing he’s given us to an avatar ... if it once felt daring – the dust-hearted cruelty, the cosmic indifference – it now feels trite. Perhaps that’s the true McCarthy mythos: he spent his career staring into the void, and now it’s staring back.
The format of Stella Maris is as bold as it is simple, consisting entirely of the conversations Alicia has with her doctor at the facility. Few authors would attempt to present the dialogue of a math genius, yet McCarthy clearly knows his way around Fermat’s Theorem. McCarthy demonstrates a unique ability to discuss complex mathematical and philosophical content in literary prose that somehow braids the two cultures. Alicia is a complex and compelling character, who reminds us that the word prodigy comes from the Latin word for monster while she also plumbs her own subconscious. Pair with The Passenger for an optimal reading experience.
For my money, the second book succeeds brilliantly where the first does not. It is by far the better of the two ... Stella Maris is powerfully condensed and streamlined, a shark of a novel ... It’s...a bit disappointing that she is both a genius and a blonde bombshell, traits that generally only co-occur in action-movie heroines. Would Alicia have been unworthy of love and mourning if she were merely one of these? ... All that aside, however, Stella Maris is gripping and absorbing, a successful spell.
Though somewhat different from its predecessor in its telling, it is no less compelling ... You may feel as if your head is going to explode while reading Stella Maris. Serve up that feeling with some self-congratulations. It means that you were paying attention. I certainly don’t recall ever encountering anything quite as deep, dark and complex as this book and The Passenger.
Underwhelming ... McCarthy has swum in these waters before, and with more impressive strokes. Strangely, The Passenger offers a more successful ending to the story of Alicia and Bobby. Though this volume feels extraneous, McCarthy diehards will still flock to it.