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The Reality of Mathematics: Cormac McCarthy’s Novels The Passenger and Stella Maris

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It was surprising when, a few months ago, Rowohlt Verlag not only announced two new novels by Cormac McCarthy, many sixteen years after the publication of his last novel “Die Straße”, but that they were to be published four weeks apart. In fact, both novels belong together thematically, like a diptych, although they can also be read separately. The almost 90-year-old Cormac McCarthy tells the intertwined and unfortunate story of a pair of siblings in the sixties to eighties, that of Bobby and Alicia Western.

Stella Maris is a pure dialogue novel

The Passenger is the brother’s novel, Stella Maris is the sister’s, the latter a dialogue-only novel based on conversations between Alicia in 1972 and a psychiatrist at the Stella Maris Mental Hospital, located in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. After his early novel “Out in the Dark” from 1968, Cormac McCarthy has cast the leading role with a woman for the first time in “Stella Maris”.

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The other, more extensive, materially and formally McCarthy-typical and first published novel “The Passenger” also contains – italicized – interludes in which a dwarf and his motley crew are visiting Alicia. They belong to another world, are optical hallucinations of the protagonist suffering from schizophrenia, and sometimes have lively, sometimes less lively conversations with her. The dwarf is an integral part of Alicia’s reality, and of course in “Stella Maris” the question arises for her about this reality, about her very own reality with her dwarf conversations – and what reality actually means.

Bobby, on the other hand, has to solve other mysteries in “The Passenger”: He lives in New Orleans, is a deep-sea diver by profession and is supposed to salvage a wrecked plane with his crew. He notices that not only is the flight recorder missing, but that according to the passenger list one of the eight dead passengers is missing. Bobby goes in search of this passenger in the depths of the islands around New Orleans, without any result – and without there being a solution to this mystery as the novel progresses. However, from now on he is being targeted by the authorities. His apartment is searched, men in suits follow him, he moves into the guest room on the first floor of one of his favorite bars.

The atmosphere conjured up by McCarthy is harmonious and great, the New Orleans, where he himself lived for a while, with its streets and pubs, the people who populate them, a lively and gloomy place. The life story of Bobby Western is less coherent and great: He is the son of a physicist who helped build the atomic bomb, he grew up with Alicia after the early death of his parents with his grandmother – and he is in his younger sister until her suicide been in love: she was the love of his life, which was now weighed down by grief. So far some facts.

Cormac McCarthy presents himself in “The Passenger” (and passages in the “Stella Maris” dialogue) as a passionate whisperer and greymist conjurer, with at times cryptic sentences reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. It indulges in many technical descriptions, has little in mind with a stringent plot and tries to negotiate crucial American issues of the 20th century, from the Kennedy assassination (not Lee Harvey Oswald?) to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ultimate Fall of Man of the USA.

The last heathen on earth

There’s a lot of bar dialogue in “The Passenger” with characters walking up and down, friends of Bobby’s, there’s also a trans person; also a flashback to a time when Bobby is a Formula 2 racer in Europe; sibling love buzzes through the novel without being formulated. Bobby is increasingly turning his back on the world as the state is on his trail and has frozen his accounts and impounded his Maserati Bora.

Again and again there are sentences with great impact, mnemonic sentences that often come out of nowhere, followed by trivial things or eating and drinking sequences. Added to this is McCarthy’s and his characters’ penchant for mathematics. This has to do with the father’s career, but Bobby also studied physics and Alicia is a brilliant mathematician. McCarthy drops names of well-known scientists, mathematical theories and other complex systems: “Yes. The particle zoo. For a while they had their sights set on quantum field theory, but they should have known better. The S-Matrix theory was very ambitious. Chew named her independently. At least his version.”

Or, from Stella Maris: Grothendieck. He is generally regarded as the most important mathematician of the twentieth century. If you ignore that Hilbert and Poincaré and Cantor lived into the twentieth century. And you should, because her most important works all date from the nineteenth century. And I’m not a huge Neumann fan.” The psychiatrist replies, “Sorry, I don’t know those names.”

US author and Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy.
© picture alliance / dpa / EPA THE PULITZER PRIZES

As a reader, one wonders what all this is about. Unfortunately, McCarthy has not worked through the long time that he is supposed to spend at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico (where interdisciplinary research on scientific theories) into a coherent novel.

The cognitive value of the scientific explanations in both novels remains low. In “Stella Maris” it is particularly revealing when the psychiatrist explores Alicia’s world of thoughts. She explains to him the futility of mathematics, its beauty, comparable only to music, explains its relationship to reality, to God, to the absolute, to nothing, and all this with all intellectual sobriety. Alicia is the counter-model to her brother (it is unclear why he is brain-dead in her novel but mourns her many years later in his), who never says many words. At the end is Bobby, “the last heathen on earth, singing softly on his bunk in an unknown tongue.”

Although there are a few gaps and gaps, unsolved riddles, questions that only Cormac McCarthy asks, and although the dwarf interludes in “The Passenger” sometimes seem meaningless and purposeless and never reach a meta level: you read both novels spellbound to the end, fascinated by McCarthy’s flawless language, his ability to create grandiose descriptions of nature, his apparently firm belief that he can get to the bottom of the universe and the fortunes of the individual in it by writing.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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