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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

The Passenger, & McCarthy (RIP)

Contains spoilers for The Passenger and Stella Maris.

After a while what is not written never happened[…] And every revision of history is a revision of wealth. And unless you’re living in a dumpster you get to contribute[…] Until you had money you didn’t have history[…] If you think that the dignity of your life cannot be canceled with the stroke of a pen then I think you should think again.

One final novel by Cormac McCarthy, and I heard of the author’s passing (at 89) while finishing this book, The Passenger. Closest in style and content to the semi-autobiographical Suttree, it focuses on Bobby Western, a grief-stricken wanderer who mourns the loss of the great love of his life, his schizophrenic sister Alicia. She dies in the prequel, Stella Maris, acting on a lifetime of suicidal ideation temporarily kept at bay by the interventions of strange apparitions that may or may not be hallucinations (at one point in The Passenger, Bobby encounters the ringleader of these figures).

The essential plot is simple. Bobby begins as a salvage diver, working around the Gulf of Mexico and the American South, but a dive on a submerged airplane attracts enigmatic agents, resulting in the protagonist being rendered destitute and on the run, hounded especially by the IRS. (Allegedly, this is for failing to pay tax on an inheritance, but there is a constant sense of more being afoot.) In the past Bobby participated in race driving, and his personal history is defined chiefly by his father’s morally questionable participation in the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, working alongside Oppenheimer.

What makes this book so like Suttree, however, is the narrative. Most of it is not preoccupied by the tensions between Western and a Kafkaesuqe State, although all of that features, but by his listless drifting through the United States before finding a melancholic sanctuary in Ibiza. But more than just this wandering life, it is concerned with the eccentrics, outcasts and oddities he meets. “I don’t see how you even know half the crazy motherfuckers you hang with.” These include the nihilistic, witty John Sheddan, Bobby’s oldest friend, a Falstaffian foil who opines such things as, “Without malefactors the world of the righteous is robbed of all meaning.” Or Kline, who advises Bobby on how to handle the government investigation, and demonstrates a brutal, reality-accepting pragmatism. Or Oiler, a salvager colleague whose fate may or may not mirror Bobby’s.

Most wonderful, however, is Debussy Fields. That is, to my shock, a sympathetic yet hilarious trans woman (think a trans Sally Bowles from Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, transposed into the American south of the 80s) who McCarthy gives this brilliant chosen name. It is proof that he was a strange and wonderful man as well as a forever relevant social commentator, seizing on someone from a group facing heightened social rejection today. Debussy seeks a kind of preternatural, archetypal femininity, and is as much in love with Bobby as he is tragically, incestuously, but finally morally with Alicia. The character is compelling and at no point a trivializing caricature of a trans femme. She has a reading of her transness not aligned with mine as a reader, but in keeping with the period and expressing a deeply resonant spiritual longing:

I want to be a woman. I was always envious of girls. Just a little bitch. That’s pretty much gone. I know that to be female is an older thing even than to be human. I want to be as old as I can be. Atavistically feminine.

What is fascinating about her is that in a novel overwhelmed with the grim gnosticism that underscores so much of McCarthy’s writing, he leaves it to a trans woman to be the most potent expression of a primordial, loving hope. Even in her later sadness she is emblematic of that spirit of redemption, however provoked to despair by learning more fully of the heartrending life of Bobby’s sister and of Alicia’s impossible desire for him. Debussy is allowed to be a glimpse of kindness and care in a world otherwise bereft of such qualities, in which without her Sheddan’s brittle, hard-edged view of things would be barely countered.

There are moments when the writing becomes aphoristic in its summation of reality as McCarthy himself sees it, a melancholic point of view that is not without some space for the salvational; “Suffering is a part of the human condition and must be borne. But misery is a choice.” But what is particularly fascinating in this last of the author’s work is how much of it is about the act of articulating a view of reality, and how we inherently reach for shared comprehension in those articulations, “having read a few dozen books in common was more binding than blood.” I loved reading his thoughts on the process of grasping at and solidifying truths, captured in reflecting on the work of mathematics:

What you write down becomes fixed. It takes on the constraints of any tangible entity. It collapses into a reality estranged from the realm of its creation. It’s a marker. A roadsign. You have stopped to get your bearings, but at a price. You’ll never know where it might have gone if you’d left it alone to go there. In any conjecture you’re always looking for weaknesses. But sometimes you have the sense that you should hold off. Be patient. Have a little faith. You really want to see what the conjecture itself is going to drag up out of the murk.

What The Passenger finally shares with Suttree is a deliberate inconclusiveness. More so than even Dostoevsky, Mikhail Bakhtin’s exemplar of literary polyphony (a narrative diversity of perspectives and voices), McCarthy allows his stories (and this one especially) to speak in a great abundance of registers with variously conflicting and reconciling understandings of the universe. While there is still a sense of an author’s voice, it is not necessarily privileged. Rather, this is a universe into which everyone is violently thrown, and then must make sense of the chaos.

Suffusing his approach with a sense of pathos and meaning, McCarthy’s novels are philosophical but never dry, nor flighty or belittling about the painful encounters that characterise human life. The Passenger is an apt adieu to a literary master who made the harshest realities into something beautiful, into a prose poetry of cruelty, persistence and a strange transcendence.

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