Book Review: THE PASSENGER by Cormac McCarthy
Page 142: Grief is the stuff of life. A life without grief is no life at all. But regret is a prison. Some part of you which you deeply value lies forever impaled at a crossroads you can no longer find and never forget.
That passage succinctly sums up the core of main character Bobby Western (of this novel, the companion piece coming in November focuses on his sister). His grief and regret drips from every scene in which he is featured in this long meandering novel.
Whenever I dare to dabble and read some “literary fiction” there are few writers that I completely trust. A trope of literary fiction may be a vague plot or a story that seems to go nowhere, an experiment in style over substance. (Please forgive me for that quick assessment). One of the writers I trust is Cormac McCarthy, although THE PASSENGER is not one of his better books. A good writer of literary fiction will keep readers engaged regardless, and McCarthy is a great writer.
The imagery that is created out of short sentences is often amazing. You can expect a tale full of symbolism and heavy philosophy (if you care to contemplate the meaning). You can expect experimentation with story-telling style. For example, McCarthy doesn’t like quotation marks or punctuation. In a book jam-packed with dialogue and conversations (often in a restaurant or bar) there are no indications of who is speaking, and no subtle clues like “Western said” at the end of sentences. The absence of punctuation also gives double meaning to some of the sentences, for example wont instead of won’t. I confess that I read McCarthy more for those interesting aspects of his writing style more than for the storyline. Also, there is no violence in this novel, an expectation that many of his stories may have created.
The beginnings of this novel seem to indicate a thriller/mystery. Bobby is employed as a salvage diver and the company he works for is asked to do a preliminary exploration of a private aircraft that crashed into deep waters. They discover the remains of the 10-passenger plane but also find that one body is missing, as well as a flight bag and the black box. They are never called back to the site, and the crash never makes the news reports. However, mysterious men in black come calling, wanting to interview Bobby and continue to follow/look for him. This plot thread continues to surface throughout the novel, but is never resolved except for some dramatic decisions that Bobby is forced to make.
The other storyline intertwined within Bobby’s story is that of his younger sister. The scenes are shorter than the chapters featuring Bobby, and precede each of them in italicized font. She is schizophrenic, living in a mental institution and having imaginary conversations with weird characters.
However, rather than a novel concerning a deep dive that uncovers information that others prefer to keep concealed this is a deep dive into the character of Bobby. (Sorry, couldn’t resist making that connection). We learn more and more about he and his sister (he feels responsible for her suicide) and their high intelligence on the genius scale. Alicia is smarter than Bobby and both are adept at advanced mathematics, possibly through inherited genes of their father, a scientist who helped develop the atomic bomb (also the source of some of Bobby’s guilt and his apparent estrangement from his parents).
While it may be essential to understanding the character of Bobby and others (this is a book full of interesting and eccentric characters) I couldn’t help feeling that McCarthy was showing off in some chapters and speaking through his own voice/opinion. There’s a conversation about physics that is way over my head, and will most likely baffle many readers. Also, McCarthy uses another character to express his thoughts on JFK’s assassination. Probably not essential to the story, but interesting nonetheless.
Final thoughts: if you like being challenged by a novel, join the THE PASSENGER for a bumpy ride.