Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy-Book

From a Google image Search – Alta Journal

Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy is so immersive; it’s like having a conversation with that person you could talk to all night. It’s one of those conversations that discusses little that is trivial. It goes deep and explores the human condition, the universe, the meaning of life, the nature of families and love. Stella Maris – could that translate to sea of stars? Apparently, it refers to a saint called star of the sea. Stella Maris in this case is the name of the fictional mental institution that Alicia Western has checked herself into as the novel begins. 

Alicia is a genius who began college in her early teens. Her parents worked for the Manhattan Project and moved with it to Oak Ridge Tennessee. They helped produce the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her father was a physicist and her mother worked in a factory setting to separate U235 from U238.  There is guilt, lots of guilt. Alicia’s genius is in mathematics. Apparently true genius only occurs among mathematicians. 

Why did I so enjoy reading a book that I can’t pretend to totally comprehend? It made me feel both brilliant and sadly lacking in intellect at one and the same time. The names of famous physicists and mathematicians offer a fair bibliography of the work in these fields. 

Can mathematics solve the riddle of life and the universe? Does the pursuit of answers drive Alicia’s insanity, or just complicate it? It seems as if she was born to contribute to and expand on the work that comprises the field of math, but then why is she also born with a gene for schizophrenia and probably autism?

She spends her life in rare libraries and esoteric pursuits when her demons leave her periodically alone. She has no friends. She computes in notebook after notebook and in her mind when no paper is available. These are the things she discusses with her therapist, who seems able to follow her intellectually, although not mathematically. Having worked my way through advanced algebra with great difficulty, it is hard for me to imagine how math leads to so much philosophy but there it is, and its deep. You won’t like her conclusions about “life, the universe, and everything” as Douglas Adams put it, so I won’t tell you that part.

Alicia has a brother, Bobbie Western. He is the subject of the first book in this series (The Passenger). I believe that it helps to read them in order. Bobbie could not follow his sister to the heights (or depths) of her mathematical pursuits, so he studied physics and threw it all over for speed. He became a race car driver. 

Alicia is in love with her brother, despite society’s biological taboo against incest. He is the only one who understands her and loves her. He seems to also be in love with his sister, but he will not break the taboo on sexual intercourse. His sister’s broken heart contributes to her psychological burdens and to her worldview. 

If Cormac McCarthy is having his midnight conversation with his readers, which I think he is, then these books show unplumbed depths. But I warn you, at 89 his own worldview is perhaps not one that is designed to cheer you up, or even wake you up, as all human efforts seem to lead us to conclude that there is no powerful being or force watching out for us puny humans. I would still love to read both books, The Passenger and Stella Maris all over again and if I have the time I will. Is it that one book to take with you to a desert island? Not unless you also bring a math tutor. However, you can grasp the gist of this book without doing the math.

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