‘What Are We Looking at Here?’

Apocalypse and Eschaton According to Cormac McCarthy

Review by Christine Havens

“What are we looking at here?” asks the Thalidomide Kid, early on in The Passenger. The Kid is an oddity. Not only is his physical appearance strange, including misshapen hands likened by McCarthy to seal flippers, but he is also a very palpable hallucination. The Kid is referencing the absence of other hallucinatory characters (the “hort”), vaudeville-esque performers who haven’t yet shown up for the evening’s entertainment.

Though McCarthy’s making a crack about early retirement, it’s a perfectly good question about both The Passenger and Stella Maris, two intertwined novels about Bobby Western, a brooding diver, and his younger sister, Alice, a 20-year-old diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, who have a complex, possibly incestuous, relationship. The novels take place at different times in the Westerns’ lives.

So what are we looking at here? Two distinct books, each taking a different approach to the same themes.

Blood Meridian has been labeled an anti-Western; The Passenger is an anti-thriller. The story takes place around 1980, beginning with the intrigue of a missing dead passenger in a sunken plane wreck off the Mississippi coast. The story contains other tropes from the thriller genre: unwanted attention of menacing federal agents; missing Manhattan Project papers; the paranoia of being followed and in danger; self-exile from one’s home country.

Interesting and offbeat characters populate Western’s world, including a private detective with mob connections, who gives a riff on JFK’s assassination. As with some of Tom Clancy’s books, where the exposition was loaded with details on the workings of submarines, for example, McCarthy’s readers learn much about quantum mechanics and mathematics alongside Bobby Western’s troubled soul.

Stella Maris, published one month after The Passenger, reads as transcripts of conversations between Alice and a psychiatrist in the winter of 1972 at the eponymous facility for psychiatric patients. This novel is essentially a platonic dialogue. While the doctor presses the young woman to explore her troubled soul — she is suicidal partially because Bobby is in a coma at that time — Alice expounds on mathematics, language, and the unconscious. Mingled in this discourse are her hallucinations and dreams, which draw on gnostic thought and other theology.

Stella Maris is a worldview, a philosophical treatise. Some passages are word for word from “The Kekulé Problem,” McCarthy’s essay on language and the unconscious, published in the Santa Fe Institute’s journal, Nautilus, in 2017. McCarthy has been a well-respected research colleague there for many years. David Krakauer, the SFI’s president, comments that the members “have been keeping a furtive tally” of how often the author’s scientific interests have made “covert manifestations and demonstrations in his prose.”

McCarthy uses those interests to craft these apocalyptic novels in which the veils of the characters’ lives are slowly being torn away and key knowledge is being shared by author and creations. What we’re seeing in both The Passenger and Stella Maris are views of the eschaton. Both books carry the weight of end times and judgment. Without giving too much of the stories away, Bobby and Alice are facing their own eschatons.

Humanity seems to be reaching its day of reckoning. Other minor characters are also reaching end times and are concerned about what awaits them based on how they’ve lived their lives. There isn’t truly explicitly graphic violence in either book, as in McCarthy’s other books, and as readers have come to expect from end-of-the-world fiction. However, violence abounds nonetheless. It’s implicit and anticipated, as in the destruction of humanity through nuclear war, and in the threats Bobby expects from the federal agents hounding him. In these latest two books, however, a high kindness, though touched with cynicism, does abide.

I often felt in over my head while reading these books. They are my first foray into McCarthy’s work, which I feared reading due to its reputation of extreme violence. I picked up Blood Meridian as a comparison, quickly putting it back down for the cruelty portrayed just in the first couple of chapters.

McCarthy’s prose, however, is wonderfully sparse and poetic. His disdain for punctuation lends itself to the apocalyptic and eschatological themes inherent in his work. What we are looking at are works of wisdom — a very human worldview of what apocalyptic and eschatological living might feel like.

Christine Havens is a writer and a graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest. She is training to be a spiritual director in the Diocese of Texas. Her work has appeared in The Anglican Theological Review and Mockingbird Ministries’ blog, mbird.com.


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