Great, Beautiful, Terrifying … Harper’s Magazine

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Parlemor, by Jens Fänge. Courtesy the artist and Perrotin

[Reviews]

Great, Beautiful, Terrifying

by Joy Williams

On Cormac McCarthy

The Passenger, by Cormac McCarthy. Knopf. 400 pages. $30.

Stella Maris, by Cormac McCarthy. Knopf. 208 pages. $26.

Cormac McCarthy’s latest offering—in that word’s fundamentally spiritual sense—is The Passenger and its coda or addendum, Stella Maris. One is prompted to read The Passenger first (it came out in October) and Stella Maris second (it came out in December). If, however, you dare to test the trickster and begin with Stella Maris—a 189-page conversation between a psychiatrist and his patient—it will seriously trouble your perception of The Passenger. If you read the books in order, you might find Stella Maris (Latin for Star of the Sea, a psychiatric hospital in Black River Falls, Wisconsin) coldly underwhelming despite, or perhaps because of, the erudition of the twenty-one-year-old, debatably schizophrenic, suicidal math genius Alice Western. The confines of the construct—the conversation—serve McCarthy’s most recent obsessions: mathematics, quantum mechanics, topology (the theory of which Alice admiringly describes as “a place to stand where you can look back at the world from nowhere”); as well as the subjects of his abiding interests: language, the unconscious, evil, the world’s indifference. But the construct here doesn’t allow the cloaking of concepts in character. Mathematics is a different language, being not a language at all. It is not literature; it is antithetical to literature. The interlocutor, a Dr. Cohen, is no Grand Inquisitor, no Judge Holden. He is professionally, incurably dull, the most deliberately uninteresting voice McCarthy has ever uttered. McCarthy has pocketed his own liturgical, ecstatic style as one would a coin, a ring, a key, in the service of a more demanding and heartless inquiry through mathematics and physics into the immateriality, the indeterminacy, of reality.

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? She’s a quester, an outlier, a method of inquiry, an experiment maybe, experimented upon like a mink crazed in a lab. Her thoughts, her devotions, her dreams, her abilities—they’re all in high orbit. She cried the first two years of her life, could read at four, confessed to synesthesia at seven, perceived the world as through a judas hole at ten:

There were sentinels standing at a gate and I knew that beyond the gate was something terrible and that it had power over me. . . . A being. A presence. And that the search for shelter and for a covenant among us was simply to elude this baleful thing of which we were in endless fear and yet of which we had no knowledge.

At twelve, visitations commence from the Kid, a far cry from the feckless, murderous innocent of Blood Meridian. This Kid is a small, fast-talking, impatient, thalidomide-damaged personage with flippers for hands. He arrives with an assemblage of musty entertainers and his visits go on for years.

At fourteen, Alice finishes college. She completes doctoral work at the University of Chicago two years later, and then receives a fellowship to study with the great mathematician Alexander Grothendieck at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques in France. She commits herself on three occasions to Stella Maris, though she really wanted to go to St. Coletta, where Rosemary Kennedy went after her lobotomy. She estimates she’s read ten thousand books. When asked by Dr. Cohen if she remembers everything she reads, she replies, “Yes. Why else would you read it?”

“Do you think of yourself as an atheist?” inquires Dr. Cohen during one of their final conversations. “God no,” she says. “Those were the good old days.”

As for her belief in the afterlife, she says, “I don’t believe in this one.”

Alice runs circles around this Dr. Cohen. She is the circle, actually, the Ouroboros, the snake of mythology coiled with its tail in its mouth, sacred symbol of the eternal cycle of destruction and rebirth, most secularly realized by the chemist August Kekulé’s dream about the configuration of molecules. Cormac McCarthy is interested in Kekulé’s dream and in the unconscious and in the distaste for language the unconscious harbors and the mystery of the evolution of language, which chose only one species to evolve in. He’s interested in the preposterous acceptance that one thing—a sound that becomes a word—can refer to another thing, mean another thing, replacing the world bit by bit with what can be said about it.

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. And this is provided! In the grotesqueness of the Kid, whose appearances she calmly accepts. She refers to him and his ridiculous accomplices as her horts—cohorts, staff, jinn, manifestations, familiars, entities, eidolons. Angels or guides they most certainly are not. They are, they become, her pals, her only pals, what she is “left with,” poor guardians, sideshow freaks, bad vaudeville acts. Their jokes, Alice points out, are the corniest, most awful ones she’s ever heard.

~~~ CONTINUE ~~~

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