Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, is back after 16 years. The writer of No Country for Old Men (2005) (whose movie adaptation won four Academy Awards), The Road (2006) (which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2007), and several others have generated excitement in his fans as he is back with not just one but two novels this time. The first novel, “The Passenger,” was published in October 2022, and “Stella Maris” is scheduled to be published on December 6, 2022. Both are companion novels and are meant to be read together. But The Passenger, having been out already, is making quite a few headlines, with several readers labeling it as a frustrating or abstruse read. Has the 89-year-old novelist simply disappointed his fans, or is this the work of a veteran author who is exploring new themes and stepping out of his cliched genres? Also, should you or should you not then be saving for the companion novel, because if The Passenger is disappointing, chances are that Stella Maris will be the same? Let’s have a look at the plot of The Passenger and see if we can find answers to some of these questions.
‘The Passenger’ Book Summary
The novel, published by Picador, comprises 383 pages; it opens in the year 1980 with a guy named Robert (mostly referred to as Bobby in the novel) Western, who is a professional diver and has been assigned the task of diving into an airplane crash site with his companion Oiler. On diving, they find nine dead bodies buckled to the seats and the jepp case and data box missing. Who took it and how? What is soon revealed is that there was another passenger in the aircraft who was missing. How did he go missing from the sunken aircraft? Is he dead or alive? Did he steal the missing items, then? A reader, whether acquainted with McCarthy’s works or not, would be expecting the answers to these questions but is instead taken on a ride to face the uncomfortable facts about life and what lies after it, reality, history, and other truths of this world that we inhabit.
It is intriguing why a writer, known for his depiction of violence, would begin a novel on such a mysterious note and then go on to dump it for questions to which we do not and cannot have answers. And what do these questions have to do with the plot of the novel? Firstly, there is no plot as such, at least not the orthodox pattern where there is a build-up of conflict, a climax, and then a resolution. What appears to be about an aircraft and a missing passenger is soon revealed to be about some mysterious ‘them’ who kill Oiler, go through Bobby’s stuff, and have also stolen from Bobby’s grandmother’s house their family letters, photographs, and his father’s papers. And these ‘them’ disappear as suddenly as they had appeared in the narrative, leaving the readers trying to grab hold of the main thread only to lose it again amidst the spool of information that McCarthy unravels. McCarthy focuses on everything but not for too long, making us question whether he is focusing on anything at all. An extraordinary amalgamation of Beckett’s existentialism coupled with Fielding’s digressions and frequent reminiscence of the great American giants like Hemingway and Faulkner, the novelist gets our hero on the road and describes the scenic beauty while disclosing the hero’s inward journey as well. Of course, the author employs tropes like hunting for gold and later an Amati violin, and the protagonist running to get away from “them” who want to get him, but this is just to confuse the readers. It might be that the author is trying to give us a slice of what it feels like when you set out on a quest to know the unknown.
After his last book, The Road, McCarthy spent a fair amount of time in the company of scientists at Santa Fe research institute, Mexico, and it was here that he started pondering over the limits of sciences. It is evident in his The Kekule Problem, his first non-fiction published in the Nautilus in the year 2017, where he talks about the unconscious mind and the origins of language. McCarthy states that our unconscious mind, which is capable of solving difficult math problems and telling us where and when we need to itch, refuses to speak to us in our language. It makes use of images and dreams. He further develops these ideas in The Passenger, where along with our hero, Bobby Western, we are also provided with the accounts of his sister Alicia. Every chapter begins with Alicia’s conversation (she has schizophrenia and suffers from hallucinations) with a very typical “being” (“hairless skull corraded with scars,” “seal-like flippers for hands,” and “funny oarlike shoes”) called Thalidomide Kid (referred to as The Kid, like the Kid in The Blood Meridian) who cracks dumb jokes and puts on acts along with other figures to entertain her. He speaks at length about things that do not make any sense and keeps addressing her using the wrong names. So, if The Kid is Alicia’s hallucinations, along with other characters like Bathless Grogan, the dwarves, and the old lady with the roadkill stole, then they are projections of her unconscious mind, isn’t it? And using these vivid projections, it is trying to keep her alive while fighting a duel with Thanatos (death instinct), which is constantly plotting her own death. It sounds easy when you put it this way. But the conversations between Alicia and The Kid reveal much more than just that.
The Kid, along with all the characters in the novel, including the protagonists, are merely mouthpieces of the author himself, who projects his own ideas, doubts, and contradictions through them in the form of Socratic dialogues with no inverted commas to begin or end with. The conversations are so long and run for so long that the readers are bound to get confused as to who is speaking. But these are quite common in McCarthy’s writings. The writer has always abhorred semicolons and quotation marks, calling them unnecessary designs on the pages of books. What is important are the ideas that are exchanged through these conversations. McCarthy doesn’t just stop at the idea of mathematics or writing or language and the things I stated previously; he goes on to give the readers a detailed history of the development of quantum mechanics, the horrors of the Vietnam war, and conspiracies associated with the murder of John F. Kennedy. Characters enter and exit, share their opinions, and digress freely, making us question whether the author is at all going to come back to the missing passenger and the aircraft or the story of Bobby’s life.
Bobby Western comes to us as a blank slate; we have no idea about him until his friend John Sheddan reveals a bit to us about Bobby’s past (again, in the form of conversation). He is a Caltech dropout physics student who has raced cars, was in a car crash, and is in love with his beautiful and brilliant but dead sister. He is now a diver who has a phobia regarding “depth” and blames himself for not having been able to save his sister at first and later his friends. His memories of the times spent with his sister, their letters, and their conversations with other characters like Sheddan, Klein, and others help the readers solve the enigmatic riddle that our dear Western is. Both the brother and sister are the children of the man who made the famous atomic bombs “which forever sealed the fate of the West.” Memories and dreams of his father and lover/sister haunt him while he keeps asking different characters the same question, which is whether they believe in the afterlife. So, the title actually doesn’t refer to the missing passenger of the aircraft but to Bobby Western, who is traveling through life. He is caught in a journey that he cannot put an end to, even when all those who were close to him die gradually.
‘The Passenger’ Book: Ending Explained – What Happens To Bobby Western? Where Does He Go To Escape ‘them’ And His Past?
Bobby Western takes the help of Debussy Fields to open the final letter from Alicia, which he never had the guts to open, knowing that reading it would mean putting an end to the story they had. Meanwhile, the cash he received from Stella Maris (the hospital where Alicia had admitted herself) helped him get a separate ID. Debussy tells him that the violin is at the shop where Alicia bought it, after which Bobby drops her off at her place and tells her that he is leaving because some people are after him. In the final chapter, we find Bobby living on a windmill in Spain. He spends a fair amount of time thinking about his father (mostly his death) and his sister. He meets some locals, spends time with them, and stumbles upon an acquaintance whose name is not mentioned. Sheddan makes one final appearance (in his hallucination) in an empty theater and reminds him how important it is to unburden himself before he begins the battle with loneliness, which will follow him to his death. He receives a letter from Ohio but refuses to take it, saying he doesn’t know anyone in America anymore. He spends time-solving math problems and soon realizes that he is losing Alicia to age and time. In the end, we see Western writing in his little black book by the light of an oil lamp and blowing it out, hoping that the day he dies, he can carry the beauty of Alicia into the eternal darkness that would envelop him.
McCarthy has done a brilliant job when it comes to the writing and the philosophies enumerated. Readers who are attracted to action thrillers and bloodshed would find the book rather dreary and incomprehensible. I personally loved it because of the enriching intellectual experience that it offered. But if someone wants to read McCarthy, The Passenger should not be their go-to book as it is definitely not his finest work as an author. Those who avoid reading McCarthy because of his sketchy and underdeveloped female characters should definitely look out for Stella Maris, coming out this December. The novel is narrated from Alicia’s point of view and covers the time that she had spent in Stella Maris.