Passing through “The Passenger”

Cormac McCarthy’s “The Passenger”: A Review

“He 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 upon his pallet in an unknown tongue.”
— Cormac McCarthy, The Passenger

Among the most interesting points to emerge from early reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger are unfavorable comparisons to Thomas Pynchon. For example, Laura Miller in Slate refers to “interludes [that] recall the most tiresome parts of Thomas Pynchon novels, all bad jokes and stupid music hall songs.”

But it’s a mistake to read Pynchon seriously. To enjoy Pynchon, one must studiously ignore every tendentious theory about the parallels between Gravity’s Rainbow and the Tarot’s Major Arcana, the conflict between free will and determinism, psychosexuality, and sacrifice. Instead, simply laugh and/or despair at the words on the page. They’re good.

In fact, I recently re-read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow in the context of ongoing discussions about literary authors (whether promoted by the literary establishment or not) whose work can be read as a critique of the prevailing socio-political climate, or at least not merely propaganda for it. Often mentioned: Céline, Houellebecq, Mishima, Jünger, Tolkien, Kipling, Conrad, Thomas Mann and perhaps most of all, Cormac McCarthy, whose novel The Road won the Pulitzer for fiction and whose novel Blood Meridian is mentioned in awed whispers. Almost never mentioned: Thomas Pynchon.

For this reason, I was keen on reading The Passenger

McCarthy’s The Passenger is a good read, but not a great one. I liked it, but I wouldn’t advise you to read it. One of the strengths of the book is McCarthy’s technical skills as a writer. Unlike Pynchon, his terse, to-the-point dialog and grounded imagery make it easy for the reader. From an early scene:

“He kicked his way slowly down the aisle above the seats, his tanks dragging overhead. The faces of the dead inches away. Everything that could float was against the ceiling. Pencils, cushions, styrofoam coffeecups. Sheets of paper with the ink draining off into hieroglyphic smears. A tightening claustrophobia. He doubled under and got himself turned around and made his way back…”

The Passenger follows Bobby Western, a salvage diver with a complex troubled past that starts catching up with him. Diving into a subterranean plane wreck he discovers certain items seem to be missing, including the plane’s black box and one of its passengers.

Bobby realizes quickly that something is wrong, and sure enough, blank-faced glowies search his flophouse, interview him, and start following him through the many organs of the federal government as Bobby tries to go to the ground. Meanwhile, he is coming to terms with his father’s involvement in the Manhattan Project and an implied incestuous relationship with his sister Alicia, who is even more troubled than Bobby. 

Alicia Western kills herself in the first scene of The Passenger, but appears in a series of interludes throughout the book, as well as in McCarthy’s companion novel to The Passenger, Stella Maris. These are the passages that Miller identified as Pynchonesque in a bad way: they feature her in extended hallucinatory dialog with a deformed infant called the Thalidomide Kid and a series of absurd schizophrenic daydreams in a sort of carnival freak show. But read for the Pynchonesque amusement of the imagery, the words on the page, these interludes are a fun counterpoint to Bobby’s more hardboiled perspective.

Neither the nature and purpose of the Thalidomide Kid nor the pulpy conspiracy hook that sets Bobby Western in motion is explained and one hundred pages into the book it becomes clear that the plot isn’t really going anywhere. We never find out what the crashed jet was about, nor the missing passenger, nor why the intel boys are so interested in Bobby.

If you can’t accept this, don’t bother reading the book. But it’s not as bad as it sounds. McCarthy has sufficient literary authority for the reader to accept his setup while he focuses on more interesting ideas. And he does have interesting things to say.

Cormac McCarthy

The key theme of The Passenger is the inherent unknowability of life and the prevailing socio-political climate. McCarthy presents this with extended discussions of quantum physics anchored in Bobby and Alicia’s father’s role in the Manhattan Project. The thesis that existence is fundamentally unknowable is argued throughout the novel. For Alicia, this unknowability is expressed in the reality of the Thalidomide Kid and his entourage, that is, the spiritual reality, the reality to the character. Does the Thalidomide Kid have a reason for his japing, is there any hope to offer Alicia? 

For Bobby, it’s the shape of the conspiracy. This conspiracy is an almost perfect inversion of Pynchon’s conspiracy in Lot 49. In Lot 49, there may or may not be a conspiracy behind events, and the answer is everything for his protagonist Oedipa Maas.

“Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth…. Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero.”

For Bobby, there’s definitely a conspiracy behind events, but he doesn’t particularly care what it is and the meaning remains in quantum superposition; both everything and nothing, fundamentally unknowable. And between Bobby and Alicia is also the unknowability of their relationship, rooted in their present estrangement and their mutual denial of having consummated that relationship, undercut by subtle hints and weighty silences from the author. 

This principle of unknowability doesn’t resonate with me much. Not to say that everything is knowable. I have written extensively on the nature of what I call “conspiracy space” as a shadow of mirrors where complete knowledge is impossible. But I have a fundamentally different view of reality than that which McCarthy is presenting in The Passenger

The Passenger is consistent and compelling. But it resembles a thought experiment told in the vocabulary of a pulp thriller more than a great work of literature. If one doesn’t buy into the premises, the limitations of the plot begin to feel suffocating, the supporting cast start looking thin, and the endless pages of the Thalidomide Kid’s capers do begin to drag.

“Not everything malodorous is a memory. Commodeodor in the corridors for instance such as might be found with the spring thaw in the colder latitudes. Farrago North Dakota or some such blighty sink where the mentally defective are wont to pool. Long away and far ago. As it says in the song.”

The Passenger isn’t McCarthy reaching for the stark, driving intensity of The Road or Blood Meridian, or for the romantic steadiness of All the Pretty Horses. The Passenger is competent and spare, cold and almost reptilian in its direct presentation, with a sense of paranoia that seems closer to The Thing than Vertigo. Fans of McCarthy will find some interest here, but The Passenger will not be how I introduce my friends to McCarthy. It’s difficult to say so, because like many others I hold his work in high regard. And perhaps given all the Pynchon I’ve been reading, I was subconsciously primed for something a bit more madcap. The bottom line? It’s a decent book.

Alexander Palacio is a writer of adventurous science fiction and fantasy.

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