Has Cormac McCarthy written the American Ulysses as per James Joyce? That’s the way The Passenger struck me, especially after the Thalidomide Kid and his cohorts finished their sad side show in the attic bedroom of Alicia Western.
It’s the male cast of characters and the vicinity to water that brings to mind the guys who spend the day together in Joyce’s novel with all it’s classical references. Here the references are not at all classical but are certainly in the tragic style of many classics. In The Passenger we have Bobby Western, Oiler, Red, the pretentious Long One-John Sheddan, Darling Dave, Brat, Count Seals. Most of these men we meet in a bar and never hear from again. Bobby is my candidate for the new Leopold Bloom. Western has just come from a dive to check into a plane reported to have landed in waters near New Orleans. It’s a mystery which I cannot tell you about but just completing this dive job changes Western’s life forever.
Alicia and Bobby are brother and sister, and rumor has it that they were in an incestuous relationship, which may have just been sibling love beyond the understanding of this motley crew of men. They were born in Wartburg, Tennessee, near Oak Ridge. Yes, the Oak Ridge of building-atomic-bombs fame. (McCarthy ignores many rules of grammar and if he uses MS Word he must ignore lots of edits.)
“His father’s trade was the design and fabrication of enormous bombs for the purpose of incinerating whole citiesful of innocent people as they slept in their beds.”
Two very bright children who inherit the guilt of their father are bound to have complicated lives. Alicia loves math. Bobby begins with biology, cataloguing all the wildlife in the woods and streams near his childhood home but later decides that he loves physics because math is not his greatest strength, and because he thinks physics is more likely to unravel the secrets of the universe. You must forgive him. He was young. Both of their parents worked in a factory that enriched uranium. The father knew all the most famous physicists and so did Bobby and Alicia. Both parents died of cancer. Alicia inherits schizophrenia which ends her career as a brilliant mathematician.
Bobby gives up physics to race Formula 2 cars in France and now has a metal plate in his head. Currently he’s a deep-sea diver. It turns out that there is a passenger missing. In fact, there are many references to passengers. Is that why men in suits are stalking Western? Is that why Oiler is dead?
These two unusual characters along with John Sheddan give the author’s prose scope to hallucinate, to offer a study in how schizophrenia can derail a life, to give us a history of physics in America, to call the roll of famous physicists, to explore the interior architecture of atoms and particles, and to take us through theories of physics up to and including string theory with some hints of the singularity.
“Somewhere beyond that the installation at Oak Ridge for enriching uranium that had led his father here from Princeton in 1943 and where he’d met the beauty queen he would marry. Western fully understood that he owed his existence to Adolf Hitler. That the forces of history which had ushered his troubled life into the tapestry were those of Auschwitz and Hiroshima that sealed forever the fate of the West.” (pg 138)
While I see physics as a practical science leading to climate change and space exploration, Western seems to have arrived at a perception that physics is the branch of science that predicts extinction.
John Sheddan, another product of the South, gives each member of the group a title. Bobby is the Squire. Sheddan pontificates,
“Flawed youths of course. To prefer a world of paper. Rejects. But we know another truth, don’t we Squire? And of course it’s true that any number of books were penned in lieu of burning down the world which was their author’s true desire. But the real question is are we few the last of a lineage? Will children yet to come harbor a longing for a thing they cannot even name? (pg. 115)
As the Thalidomide Kid, a hallucination Alicia invents to hang on to whatever sanity she can find, McCormack gets to say things like:
“Listen, Ducklescence, he whispered. You will never know what the world is made of. The only thing that’s certain is that it’s not made of the world. As you close upon some mathematical description of reality you can’t help but lose what is being described. Every inquiry displaces what is addressed. A moment in time is a fact, not a possibility. The world will take your life. But above all and lastly the world does not know that you are here. You think that you understand this. But you don’t. Not in your heart you don’t. If you did you would be terrified. And you’re not. Not yet. (pg. 109)
I loved this book so much that I read it twice and I might read it again, but it is not linear, and it is not cheerful. I cannot say if you will find that it speaks to you, but Cormac McCarthy had me at physics. Although after reading The Passenger I may have to give up believing that physics will unravel the secrets of life and the universe.