Cormac McCarthy received a lot of attention when it was known that not just one but two of his books would be coming out in 2022. The novelist’s last book was The Road, published in 2006. Even though McCarthy’s fans were really excited, when The Passenger came out, it received mixed reviews. Some called it a brilliant experimental read by the 89-year-old novelist, and there were others who felt that the novel was too confusing. With “Stella Maris,” McCarthy has broken all boundaries of the literary genre called the novel. It has no plot as such; only words are exchanged between two persons—one a psychiatrist and the other his patient. The novel would remind you of the absurd dramas back in the 1950s, especially Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which was infamous for nothing quite happening on stage. Nobody comes, and nobody leaves, making us question the intent of the dramatist in the very first place. In “Stella Maris,” the conversation that takes place between Alicia or Alice and her psychiatrist is comprehensible but, at the same time, very complex, confusing, thought-provoking, and even scary at times. The language that they converse in is well known to us, but the concepts that Alicia brings up in the conversations are things that most of us are not aware of, and even if people are, they haven’t thought of them in the manner in which McCarthy puts them.
The novel opens in the year 1972 at Stella Maris hospital, where a patient named Alicia Western has recently admitted herself. She is 20 years old, attractive, and half-Jewish. She is a doctoral candidate in the stream of mathematics at the University of Chicago and has arrived with a plastic bag that contains around 40,000 dollars. She has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and has been admitted to the same hospital on two previous occasions. This is a small bio of our protagonist that the readers are provided with at the opening of the novel. Then begins the conversation between Alicia and her shrink. The psychiatrist asks questions, which Alicia answers, and what at first seems like a bit of a weird conversation between a patient and an expert soon turns into one of the most complex discussions on anything and everything, starting from the beginning of the universe to the Manhattan Project and the language of our dreams. It has them all. We also come to know that Alicia is not ready to talk about anything related to her brother. Later, she does drop some pieces of information on her brother, though. Apparently, her brother was into car racing and had an accident. He was admitted to a hospital somewhere in Italy and is now in a coma. The doctors have been trying to get Alicia to sign the documents, which would allow them to pull the plug, but she did not want to do it, that is why she has admitted herself to Stella Maris so that she doesn’t have to sign them.
The book is divided into seven sessions (the sessions she has with her shrink), each starting with a normal question like “How are you doing?” and then diving quickly and suddenly into matters that are dark and complex. No topic has been talked about in length for a really long time. It’s like someone is taking an interview with the author and asking his opinions on different subjects. Alicia appears to be a mouthpiece for McCarthy, presenting his opinion on mathematics, physics, reality, dreams, madness, the universe, and the like. Though McCarthy provides enough details about Alicia as well, which enables the readers to paint a vivid picture of her in their minds, there’s hardly a doubt that Alicia is McCarthy himself.
The readers are also made aware very early in the novel of Alicia’s hallucinations. She has experienced visual and auditory hallucinations for quite a while. A character called The Kid appears very often, speaking to her about various things and bringing other characters as well, all of whom Alicia categorizes as entertainers. Her hallucinations and her dreams comprise half of the words exchanged between the psychiatrist and the patient. Those who have read The Passenger would know what eventually happens to Alicia and her brother Bobby, for it describes in detail the life of Bobby Western, Alicia’s brother, after a few years. But for those who have not, most of what Alicia is talking about would seem weird, unnecessarily complex, and very frustrating. It’s one thing to read an essay to understand the musings of an author, but to pick up a novel to read only to get lost amidst the incomplete theories and philosophies is another. Those who are acquainted with McCarthy’s writings would feel he has created something wonderful and extraordinary at the age of 90, but those who pick up “Stella Maris,” having never read any other of McCarthy’s works, would be lost and irritated. The Passenger was something that required two or three reads just to understand the surface meaning, but its companion novel is not that. No matter how many times one reads it, it won’t become easier because it’s not dependent on the reader’s understanding but rather on their knowledge base. All in all, this is a book for a few and not at all for the masses.