The Defiance of Cormac McCarthy’s Late Style

The Defiance of Cormac McCarthy’s Late Style

Subterranean Treasures

Cormac McCarthy’s late style.


In a moving tribute to his friend Ned Rorem, the American composer famous for art songs and sex diaries, who died last year at 99, the critic Joshua Barone reports that one of Rorem’s signature gags was to insist that everything in the world—from music to food to people—was either German or French. In that same facetious spirit, I’d like to propose that every era in the history of taste can be classified into one of two categories: those that prefer the Ópera Prima and those that prefer the Late Masterpiece. Periods that favor debutantes are romantic and avant-garde, or else give rise to a classicist revival in which the old forms are imbued with youthful vigor. Times that admire maturity gravitate toward the baroque and the mannered, or else to a modernist refashioning of tradition. When the essence of art is associated with youth, a whole generation rediscovers Mozart; when it’s associated with wisdom, Bach becomes fashionable yet again.

From my perch in Mexico City, I get the sense that the literary United States (or rather, literary New York—a foreigner can’t be expected to keep up with the cultural press of more than one American city, can he?) is living through an era of first-timers. Every few weeks I come across glowing profiles of precocious writers hailed at once for their promise and for its fulfillment. Sometimes the hype reaches such a feverish pitch that several young—or until-recently-young—novelists have felt compelled to write a book or essay about how awful it is to be celebrated for your debut. The result is that the generational changing of the guard has accelerated. Barely 16 years after a clique of sad young literary Harvard grads started a little magazine to great acclaim, a new cohort of Ivy Leaguers feels compelled to found its own journal, also to great acclaim; and I’m already sure that a new cohort of future New York editors with elite credentials is already cutting its teeth at the College Hill Independent.

To be clear: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this infatuation with precociousness. In fact, I’d argue it’s preferable to the cult of old age, which is often conservative and at times reactionary. Besides, and more importantly, many of these young writers are in fact artists of the first caliber, every bit as praiseworthy as their peers in the older generations. Still, the fixation with the Ópera Prima does carry some risks: It can cloud the lenses of critics tasked with evaluating the work of mature artists.

The 89-year-old Cormac McCarthy’s latest effort is a prime example of the sort of post-zenith masterwork that our time appears ill-equipped to appreciate. Billed at once as the culminating pinnacle of McCarthy’s career and an unexpected departure from his earlier work, The Passenger and Stella Maris are sibling novels about incest, mourning, mathematics, salvage diving, schizophrenia, New Orleans, theoretical physics, Knoxville, the invention of nuclear weapons, car racing, suicide, vaudeville theater, the weight of history, the sins of the father, psychiatry, the crisis of the European sciences, and the moral decline of the West. At once intricate and beautiful, challenging and moving, the new novels are driven by the unmistakable linguistic combustion that powered the books that cemented McCarthy’s reputation in earlier years. But they also mark a radical expansion in his philosophical scope. The author of Blood Meridian is done writing stylized ballets about Homeric cowboys who embody what Simone Weil called “force”: “that x that turns anybody subjected to it into a thing.” Instead, he has chosen a far more arduous road, one that isn’t satisfied with depicting the limits of existence but instead seeks to discover their meaning. This pair of books may well be his greatest yet.

And yet, perhaps because we are in an Ópera Prima phase, much of the reception of The Passenger and Stella Maris has thus far failed to grasp the extent of McCarthy’s achievement. The fixation on youthful freshness has blinded many critics to the fact that McCarthy is playing a different game than our beloved new rising stars. His novels are not masterworks of autobiographical fiction but instead demonstrate the intellectual depth and formal bravura of a mature writer liberated from today’s conventions of self-obsession by an awareness that he no longer has anything to prove. In their rejection of “harmony and resolution” and their embrace of “intransigence and contradiction,” to borrow from Edward Said’s writings on the “late style” of aging masters, they embody an “unproductive productiveness.” Like Bach’s Art of the Fugue, The Passenger and Stella Maris are not interested in seducing or winning over their audience. But this disinterest in meeting our expectations is a product not of arrogance but rather of autonomy—a freedom known only to artists who understand that their end is near and, for that very reason, write not for their time but for posterity.

Taking place in the 1970s and ’80s, McCarthy’s new novels follow Bobby and Alicia Western, two tragically intelligent siblings who share a genius for numbers and abstraction, an almost theological guilt over their father’s role in the creation of the atomic bomb, and a love for each other so passionate that it transgresses the oldest and most fundamental human law: Never desire your own blood.

Alicia, the younger of the two, is also the more brilliant: a child savant, even a mathematical prodigy. She is also—and relatedly, McCarthy seems to suggest—afflicted with severe schizophrenia. Her main symptom is a vivid recurrent hallucination in which a circus troupe of surreal creatures visits her uninvited and subjects her to a vaudeville of the absurd. The older Bobby gave up physics for European Formula Two racing upon discovering that his talents paled in comparison with Alicia’s. After he wakes up from a coma following a racing crash and discovers that his sister has committed suicide, he quits his glamorous flirtation with speed and death to become a salvage diver in New Orleans, where he cultivates the conversation of colorful characters that include a Falstaffian drug trafficker, a trans woman with an interest in theology, and a private investigator who used to be a fortune teller. Bobby, too, is sick, but unlike his sister his disease is less psychiatric than psychoanalytic. Long after Alicia’s death, he still suffers from what Freud called melancholia: an endless, masochistic mourning that stems from the patient’s pathological need to hold on to their grief—the last earthly remnant of a lost love object.

The chronological relationship between the two novels is complicated and at times confusing. Although The Passenger opens with a description of Alicia’s lifeless body, McCarthy frequently interrupts his account of Bobby’s grief to transport us back in time and regale us with—or subject us to—terrifying vignettes of her hallucinations. Likewise, while Stella Maris functions as a prequel of sorts, much of it amounts to almost divinatory foreshadowings of The Passenger’s revelations. Despite the temporal gulf that separates their plots and their vast differences in form, the novels are animated by a common spirit of serious playfulness, of humorous sorrow, as well as by a shared set of questions around mortality. If The Passenger is above all a meditation on mourning, Stella Maris is at its heart a contemplation of chosen death. The result is a diptych that offers two distinct perspectives on a single landscape: twin stars—or perhaps black holes—orbiting around each other in a dialectical dance.

For all these reasons, I wish I’d read Stella Maris first. The shorter and more essayistic of the two books, it works better as an overture than as a coda. Consisting entirely of transcriptions of Alicia’s therapy sessions with her counselor at an in-patient mental hospital, the novel is full of explicit statements of the ideas that serve as the philosophical core of both books. Alicia is a polymath, as well versed in literature and analytic philosophy as in mathematical topology, and so her conversations with her physician range from wry critiques of the dubious epistemology of modern psychiatry to sorrowful considerations of the false promise of numbers. The drama of Alicia’s incestuous love for her brother emerges slowly and unfolds obliquely, culminating in an understated description of an erotic dream in which the unexpected appearance of a single obscene term—“girljuice”—is enough to induce in the reader the uncanny combination of fascination and horror that Lacan associated not only with the transgression of taboos but with desire in general.

By the standards of prestige television, then, Stella Maris isn’t so much unreadable as incomprehensible. But by the standards of the novel of ideas as Diderot and his heirs understood it, the book is a triumph. Consider a passage in which Alicia describes a scene from her childhood at Los Alamos, where her father’s colleagues at the Faustian labs that produced the bomb would come over to her family’s house for late-night drinks:

The house smelled of perfume and cigarette smoke. You could hear the clink of glasses. I would lie there listening until the last guests left.

You couldnt [sic] have understood what they were talking about.

What I understood was that I had to learn what it was that they were talking about…. I understood I was in a place where I was going to be for a long time and that I had to figure it out. That everything depended on my finding out where I was….

How old were you when you discovered mathematics?

Probably older than memory. I was musical first. I had perfect pitch. Have. Later I suppose I came to see the world as pretty much proof against any comprehensive description of it.

Here McCarthy, like Fernanda Melchor in her novel Paradais, is writing in an allegorical mode in which ontogenesis mirrors phylogenesis. We are reading an interview with Alicia Western, yes, but also with a personification of the West. Her account of her childhood doubles as a miniature intellectual history of an entire civilization—from Pythagoras to Gödel, from Parmenides to Wittgenstein—and the despair she experiences, a byproduct of a compulsive desire to find meaning in a world with no inherent meaning, is arguably not just her own but also modernity’s.

Stella Maris therefore tells a tale of disenchantment, a negative bildungsroman that does not culminate with the young protagonist’s acceptance of the world as it is but with her radical rejection of what she sees as its fundamental injustice. Over its course we gradually—though by no means linearly—discover the origins of Alicia’s hopelessness: her parents’ mismatched marriage; her mother’s catatonic breakdown; her father’s otherworldly distance; her own precociousness, mistaken for pathology; her Luciferian infatuation with equations; her terrifying discovery that on the other side of mathematics, there is either faith and magical thinking or else the indifferent silence of a mindless void; her doctors’ successive misdiagnoses; her careful phenomenological assessment of the merits and disadvantages of suicide by drowning; and above all her brother’s refusal to consummate their love. By the time we reach the end of the short book, we are left as perplexed and unsettled as her counselor, who is self-aware enough to realize that he cannot keep up with the terrifying lucidity of a mind that has worked out an incontrovertible proof for the proposition that life is not worth living. In a final reversal that in the work of a lesser novelist would risk cheap sentimentality, Stella Maris concludes with Alicia’s request that her physician hold her hand.

To think of Stella Maris as merely a companion piece to the much longer The Passenger would be a mistake. Still, The Passenger is arguably the better novel, or rather the more immediately satisfying one—which may say something about the novel of ideas, a genre of hard-won pleasures that our impatient age dislikes. The greater part of The Passenger is set some 10 years after Alicia’s suicide and centers on Bobby’s mostly unsuccessful attempts to find a reason to stay alive in a world where she is not, all while he flees shadowy pursuers whose interest in him seems to have something to do with a missing passenger on a wrecked private jet that he and his fellow divers were asked to salvage.

The result is a polytonal novel that is by turns carnivalesque and conspiratorial, picaresque and paranoid, metaphysical and muscular: a thriller performed at adagio maestoso, a cinematic treatise that proves at once challenging and eminently readable, even fun in the deep sense of the term—not “entertaining” but “pleasurable.” Take an early passage, which reads to me like a mash-up of a Greek tragedy translated by Anne Carson and a screenplay written by Quentin Tarantino:

Blanca smiled. She sipped her drink. Tell me something, she said.

Of course.

Does Knoxville produce crazy people or does it just attract them?

Interesting question. Nature nurture. Actually the more deranged of them seem to hail from the neighboring hinterlands. Good question though. Let me get back to you on that.

Well he seemed very nice to me.

He is very nice. I’m enormously fond of him.

But he’s in love with his sister.

Yes. He is in love with his sister. But of course it gets worse.

Blanca smiled her odd smile and licked her upper lip. Okay. He’s in love with his sister and…?

He’s in love with his sister and she’s dead.

There’s something humorous, almost parodic, in the fragment’s shameless embrace of its own narrative function—namely, to introduce the main character’s central conflict—which it fulfills with the sort of explicitness one associates with well-made mass-market films. The result is a double pleasure: first the immediate enjoyment of a well-crafted plot, the sort of kick one gets out of cloak-and-dagger paperbacks, and then the mediated delight of ironic knowingness, of a self-aware adoption of lowbrow forms. Because, of course, McCarthy’s gestures toward narrative legibility are for the most part red herrings. The conclusion of the novel is less a grand climax than a slow-motion catharsis. There is no end to a novel that appeared from the outset to be building toward one—or rather there is, but the satisfaction it induces is not an anxiolytic resolution but an unsettling suspension.

This playful withholding of closure at the conclusion of a novel that pretends to be driven by plot is one of McCarthy’s signature tricks. So is the highbrow reworking of a lowbrow form: McCarthy made his name writing the most sophisticated westerns the world has ever known. But what is remarkable about the new books is that here he embraces far more of the highbrow: The novels, like the best of William Gaddis or Thomas Mann, maintain a delicate balance between narrative and discourse, erudition and emotion, storytelling and mood-setting, description and reflection, representation and interpretation. It’s not every day that one encounters high-modernist prose about higher-mathematical problems that captures one’s attention to such a degree that the desire to read a few more pages eats into one’s hours of sleep. A good writer can produce a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk so demanding that engaging with it feels like homework, or else a Rossinian divertimento that induces the same mixture of delight and dissatisfaction as a dinner of ice cream. But only a great writer—a writer like McCarthy—can achieve what Nietzsche saw in Berlioz: the marriage of density and ease, of sensual enjoyment and intellectual challenge.

McCarthy’s latest novels, then, are both new and old, high and low, philosophical and plot-driven. His procedures are modern, but his themes—like those of most modernists—are ancient: The concerns of Alicia and Bobby are those of Antigone and Hamlet. The Passenger and Stella Maris thus combine the best aspects of McCarthy’s early and middle work and remake them into a novel synthesis that exceeds the sum of its parts: a late style that doesn’t just elaborate on previous efforts but also casts them in a new light. The philosophical intentions that animate this late-career shift are clear: McCarthy isn’t interested in convincing us of the meaninglessness of existence, but in giving us the tools to create meaning where otherwise there would be none. There’s a reason Western literature returns again and again to the concerns of classical tragedy: The form is curative, or at least palliative. Like the dramas of Euripides and Aeschylus, McCarthy’s account of Western disillusionment possesses a certain therapeutic quality—a sense that if one manages to confront the fear and trembling at the heart of being at once conscious (and thus limitless) and mortal (and thus limited), one might be able to work through the grief and horror and, if not transcend them, at least learn to live with the fact that we will never be at home in the world.

Such consolations are subtle, which perhaps explains why some of McCarthy’s recent readers appear to have missed them. Consider, for example, Laura Miller’s conclusion in her review in Slate:

McCarthy’s fiction…sometimes threatens to become a parody of itself. At its best, it counters his nihilistic tendencies with the sheer thrill of narrative, arguing, in its way, that a sleek, relentless story, gorgeously told, offers pleasures enough for this world. These confusing, confused late-life novels don’t do that. Instead they’re overtaken by dissolution. McCarthy is 89. If he has really come to believe that our existence is utterly brutal and meaningless, why bother to write about it at all?

I’m inclined to say that the very fact that McCarthy has not only declined to follow Alicia in choosing nothing over grief but also “bothered” to write these books—which, like all works of art, are ultimately meaning-making machines—is itself proof that he does not believe that our existence is utterly senseless, even if it’s undeniably brutal. Instead, these two novels are a testament to his hope—a hope diminished by the viciousness of our age, but still present and persistent.

The problem here isn’t simply that many contemporary reviewers seem to believe that Shakespeare shared Hamlet’s opinions or that Sophocles saw Oedipus as a model citizen, or even that some literary critics apparently prefer ghostwritten celebrity memoirs—Prince Harry’s book Spare, declared the headline of a recent column by Miller, “is just good literature”—to serious works of art. At their core, these ungenerous interpretations are the result of judging a Late Masterpiece as if it were an Ópera Prima. If one interprets The Passenger and Stella Maris according to the aesthetic axioms that guided some of the most celebrated literary debuts by writers of my generation—say what you mean; write what you know; speak only for yourself, which is to say only about yourself—then one might indeed conclude that Bobby Western is an autofictional stand-in for McCarthy, and that the “confusing” nature of the novels is the product of the limitations of a “confused” writer who simply doesn’t know his craft well enough to deliver an easy-to-follow story.

Such readings miss the obvious: McCarthy is no beginner. He has a vast body of work behind him, and he has demonstrated that he’s capable of writing perfectly legible novels. If the new books are “confusing”—and I’m not convinced they are—it is because he chose to write opaquely as a means to achieve his aesthetic ends. What’s more, these ends have little in common with those of many of today’s celebrated debutantes. The protagonists of McCarthy’s latest novels are not “normal people” but tragic heroes: geniuses touched by a divine madness that condemns them to despair, but at the same time offers us—the spectators of their drama—a peculiar kind of salvation. McCarthy’s late masterpieces are not naturalistic depictions of “real life”; they are allegorical dramas in which a number of universal (or rather Western) tragedies have been artfully (or rather artificially) intensified, all in the hopes of helping us grasp a few truths about our fallen condition. We are supposed to see our own reflection in Bobby and Alicia Western, yes, but the siblings are less an undistorted looking glass than a fun-house mirror that accentuates the horror—and also the beauty—of possessing consciousness.

Nowhere are the redemptive powers of McCarthy’s contemplation of despair more evident than in the final pages of The Passenger. Bobby’s demons have chased him to the Catalan coast, where he has taken refuge in white wine, in the near-ruin of a windmill, in nights spent stargazing on the beach, and in a last-ditch attempt to follow Pascal’s advice to start by kneeling. Here, chronological narration breaks down almost entirely: A paragraph will paint a devastating picture of the thrill and terror of a sister’s unsisterly kiss; the next will recount the senescence of an unforgivable father whose son nevertheless forgives him; only to turn, at the very end, to the Last Man’s realization that even the fading memory of a face—a love unconsummated, an apple left unbitten—is enough to sustain us in our pilgrimage into night.

Upon closing McCarthy’s late masterpieces, one is overwhelmed with pity—not the banal, condescending sympathy of contemporary usage, but the transformative emotion that the ancient theorists of Attic tragedy designated with the word pathos. One is also, and more importantly, filled with a newfound compassion for one’s fellow human beings: those vulnerable creatures at the mercy of necessity without design, those powerless passengers groping in the dark, not knowing what they do, mistaking fate for freedom, holding on to their dim lanterns, desperate for love. Such is the “universal irony” that Schiller and Schlegel saw in Cervantes and Shakespeare, and that I think one can see in McCarthy: the capacity to contemplate the human catastrophe from the perspective of a minor deity who knows—and loves—the hearts of mortals and yet cannot save them, but may well console them.

It may well be that literature that depends on the adoption of such a godlike attitude is better laid to rest in our age of Ópera Prima. Our era’s preference for the debut novel is also a preference for the autofictional, for a rejection of universality in favor of particularity, of identity defined as difference. Still, I sometimes long for writing courageous—or hubristic or long-lived—enough to dare to say something about the whole of the human condition: something that is almost certainly wrong, or at least incomplete, but that is nevertheless worth saying. The key to access the treasures in McCarthy’s late novels is to remember that the laws of aesthetics are never absolute or eternal, but always historical, contextual—and yet can still allow us to glimpse the universal.

The formalist in me would be perfectly satisfied with the architectural elegance found in McCarthy’s late style—how its formal containers (i.e., its embrace of confusion and discontinuity) fit perfectly around its content (i.e., the notion that while life is meaningless, it’s also beautiful, and that this beauty is enough to make it meaningful). But the structuralist in me is equally grateful for McCarthy’s lucid confrontation with the decadence of the West, and perhaps even more so for his defiant refusal to surrender to that decline. Because, as it turns out, The Passenger and Stella Maris may not be as apolitical as they seem at first sight. Could it be that literary New York’s fixation on the Ópera Prima is but an outward manifestation of a collective act of repression, a defense mechanism designed to keep the culture of a declining empire from confronting the fact that the United States is not living through a youthful Renaissance in which everything is new, but through the postindustrial equivalent of Late Antiquity? Could it be that McCarthy’s rejection of ordinary coherence is not only a tribute to a soon-to-be-anachronistic modernism but also an injunction to rouse ourselves from our post-historical ennui, our punctilious privilege-accounting, our self-satisfied anxiety, our paralyzing guilt? Could it be that, in old age, McCarthy sees something that in our youthfulness we refuse to see? In Stella Maris and The Passenger, McCarthy invites us to consider hopelessness not just to give us hope but to compel us to make use of it. Having lived for nearly 100 years, he has given us what may well be the last great novels of the long 20th century. He may also help point us in a different direction for the twenty-first.

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