Cormac McCarthy returns with the first of a two-volume saga: The Passenger is the story of a salvage diver, haunted by loss, afraid of the watery deep, pursued for a conspiracy beyond his understanding, and longing for a death he cannot reconcile with God.
McCarthy in afflatus mode is magnificent, vatic, wasteful, hammy ... McCarthy’s deflatus mode is a rival rhetoric of mute exhaustion, as if all words, hungover from the intoxication, can hold on only to habit and familiar things ... For the first time in his career, McCarthy is aiming to write fiction about 'ideas' ... In the new pair of novels...a fresh space is made to enable the exchange of ideas, and the rhetorical consequences are felt in the very textures of the fiction ... His ear for dialogue has always been impeccable ... People think and speak rationally, mundanely, intelligently, crazily, as they do in real life; only for a writer as strange as McCarthy would this innovation deserve attention. And along with the excellent dialogue there are scores of lovely noticings, often of the natural world ... 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.
Staggering ... Narratively speaking, the book is more interested in expanding the scope of its own mystery than in solving it ... Don’t come here for a thriller about a plane crash, but the pages do turn with remarkable ease. From the initial mystery of a missing person, the novel explodes outward like an atomic chain reaction to the very face of God, at the intersection of mathematics and faith ... Is this sounding like a lot? It is. The Passenger also happens to be something of a masterpiece, an unsolvable equation left up on the blackboard for the bold to puzzle over ... It is his most ambitious work, or perhaps a better word would be weirdest. But it’s held together with wit and chuckle-out-loud humor, which can be sparse in his other novels ... And it’s genuinely fun to read throughout ... It makes sense that at this stage in his career, the author would push in his chips and attempt to understand the mechanical clockwork of reality itself.
The experience of reading Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, The Passenger...kept making me think about the word 'portentous' ... 'Portentous,' according to Webster’s, can mean foreboding, 'eliciting amazement' and 'being a grave or serious matter.' But it can also mean 'self-consciously solemn' and “ponderously excessive.” It contains its own yin-yang of success and failure. Applied to prose, it can mean that a writer has attained a genuinely prophetic, doom-laden gravitas, or that the writing goes after those very qualities and doesn’t get there, winding up pretentious. McCarthy has always been willing to balance on this fence ... Still, it was a thrill to hear new McCarthy sentences ... The teetering wouldn’t be interesting if he weren’t capable of those spellbinding descriptive passages, a trademark ... Much of The Passenger happens in a room, or a couple of rooms, where the same scene, with variations, runs on a loop. I suspect that many readers will resist or resent spending as much time there as we do. I came to find the goings-on sometimes captivating, but almost feel that I am covering for my abuser in confessing that ... I’m not sure why Alicia’s therapy transcripts have been made a separate volume, in Stella Maris. That is, I’m not sure why McCarthy felt that The Passenger could absorb her hallucinations but not her treatment. Seems arbitrary, as formal choices go ... The Passenger is far from McCarthy’s finest work, but that’s because he has had the nerve to push himself into new places, at the age of all-but-90. He has tried something in these novels that he’d never done before.