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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Hodgson

The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy

Updated: Jan 6, 2023


The works of Cormac McCarthy have been my academic passion for a very long time; I’ve written dissertations, given presentations and attended conferences all dedicated to his writing. Needless to say, when a publication date for The Passenger was finally announced earlier this year I was beside myself with excitement.


I was incredibly fortunate to receive a proof copy a few weeks ago and have been poring over it ever since. I always have a notebook by my side to jot down the ideas and quotes I want to come back to, and this was no exception. One of my current favourites from the novel is this: ‘All of history a rehearsal for its own extinction.‘ If you’re looking for something which sets the tone for the whole book then this may just be it.


The Passenger is the first of a double release from McCarthy this autumn; Stella Maris will follow in November. The protagonists of these novels are siblings: brother and sister Bobby and Alicia Western. Their father was one of the physicists who helped develop the atomic bomb, and Bobby himself was a promising physicist at one time. His sister Alicia was a maths prodigy who spends the final years of her life institutionalised at the Stella Maris facility. At the opening of this first novel, we find out that she has committed suicide, and that is one of the events which frames Bobby’s story.


Bobby is now a salvage diver, and he is called to a jet which has mysteriously crashed into the water. There is something amiss with the crash site, however. There was one more name on the manifest then there are bodies on the plane, and the flight’s data recorder is missing. At first glance, you may assume that the novel as it unfolds from this moment will be something of a thriller. The missing jet, however, is just one of a myriad of threads which form the complex body of the book. This is literary fiction, so if you are looking for something tightly plot-driven, then this book isn’t going to be for you. To be honest, McCarthy is probably not going to be the writer for you. (Although I do recommend you give No Country For Old Men a try!)


This is a tricky novel to pin down in many respects. McCarthy has an ability to explore the human condition with unflinching and devastating prose which also manages to be profoundly beautiful at the same time. This is no exception. We see Bobby‘s life disintegrate by degrees, and all the while he wrestles with the ghosts of the past which have shaped his life so far. There are passages of some of the most deeply (and darkly) philosophical prose I’ve read in a long time balanced with barroom discussions about nothing at all between Bobby and his colourful patchwork of companions. Whilst this is may be nothing new in McCarthy's work, there are some definite new additions. For a writer who has never shied away from sharing the violent tendencies of the human race, here we have swapped bloodshed for quantum mechanics. The sections discussing theoretical physics are a little over my head, I have to be honest, and I’m sure that I am missing some of the finer points of the novel as a result. I would be interested to review some of these again at a later stage with a physics textbook alongside to aide my understanding. I never thought I’d ever want to read a science textbook for fun!


The dialogue is in McCarthy’s traditional unpunctuated style. I realise the irony in the fact that I, a punctuation geek, am so enamoured with an author who so famously disregards all but the most basic of punctuation marks!


The novel feels littered with little nods to McCarthy's previous works. They feel like Easter eggs, but then McCarthy would never do something quite so frivolous. A character called the Kid leapt off the page at me (the protagonist of Blood Meridian is also referred to only as 'the kid'), and I did enjoy the statement that "... maybe the end of the road has nothing to do with the road. Maybe it doesn't even know there's been a road." If you've read McCarthy's 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel then I'm sure you'll also appreciate this particualr observation.


I’m looking forward to next month’s publication of Stella Maris. This novel will be a further departure in style for McCarthy: a female protagonist and told exclusively as transcripts of Alicia’s sessions at Stella Maris are both elements we’ve not seen from him before. To still be pushing boundaries like this at the age of 89 is incredible, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it intertwines with The Passenger.


The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy is out now with Picador in the UK.

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