The first time I encountered the Bomb in a Cormac McCarthy novel, I missed it. At the end of The Crossing, the second of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, protagonist Billy Parham is wandering in southern New Mexico after having buried most everything and everyone he has loved. He is awakened “in the white light of the desert noon,” which turns out to be a false noon, a light that “draw[s] away along the edges of the world” to reveal the still-night. Billy walks out into the road and calls vainly for a broken-down dog he’d chased away the night before. He sits down in the road and weeps. “He sat there for a long time and after a while the east did gray and after a while the right and godmade sun did rise, once again, for all and without distinction.” So ends the book. Like Billy, I had no idea, on first reading, what it was that had happened. More astute readers would recognize it as the Trinity test, conducted near Alamogordo on July 16, 1945.
There is no such danger of missing the nuclear in McCarthy’s latest—and, since his death in June, final—pair of novels: The Passenger and Stella Maris. The protagonists are siblings Bobby and Alicia Western, children of a (fictional) physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos with Robert Oppenheimer. Bobby, erstwhile graduate student in physics and race-car driver, now lives in New Orleans working as a salvage diver. After a colleague and friend dies in a mysterious accident, Bobby enters St. Louis Cathedral and thinks of “the dead remembered here who had no other being and who would soon have none at all.” He thinks, in a passage that captures McCarthy’s characteristic melding of the horrific and the sublime, of his father and of the bomb at Hiroshima:
Burning people crawled among the corpses like some horror in a vast crematorium. They simply thought that the world had ended. It hardly even occurred to them that it had anything to do with the war. They carried their skin bundled up in their arms before them like wash that it not drag in the rubble and ash … Those who survived would often remember these horrors with a certain aesthetic to them. In that mycoidal phantom blooming in the dawn like an evil lotus and in the melting of solids not heretofore known to do so stood a truth that would silence poetry a thousand years. Like an immense bladder, they would say. Like some sea thing. Wobbling slightly on the near horizon. Then the unspeakable noise. They saw birds in the dawn sky ignite and explode soundlessly and fall in long arcs earthward like burning party favors.
Such images of enormity hover in the background of more personal catastrophes. The Passenger follows Bobby as he grieves for his younger sister, a mathematical genius who killed herself ten years before the start of the action, and at the same time tries to outmaneuver shadowy governmental forces that take an interest in him after a salvage job involving a downed plane and a mysteriously missing passenger. In his more peaceful moments, he converses lengthily with his friends on topics ranging from Vietnam to twentieth-century physics. Intercalary flashbacks relate scenes from Alicia’s past, including her conversations with a group of perhaps-hallucinatory companions—most prevalently the Thalidomide Kid, a three-foot-tall wisecracker with flippers for hands. Stella Maris recounts Alicia’s sessions with her therapist, Dr. Cohen, in the months before her suicide, conversations that touch on the bomb but find a greater personal gravity in the topic of Alicia and Bobby’s incestuous, though unconsummated, love for one another.
Although peripheral to the plot, nuclear weapons haunt the combined narrative as symbols of past horrors and future extinction. That Western civilization is somewhere in its last days, or the symbolic evening of its day, is a premise generally accepted by the characters. “We might have very different notions about the nature of the oncoming night,” says the Kid. “But as darkness descends does it matter?” Or compare this to a statement by Bobby’s drinking buddy “Long John” Sheddan: “When the onset of universal night is finally acknowledged as irreversible even the coldest cynic will be astonished at the celerity with which every rule and stricture shoring up this creaking edifice is abandoned…” Alicia, for one, is less sure about the inevitability of our annihilation, but she seems to see the prospect of human survival just as darkly. “That there is little joy in the world,” she tells Dr. Cohen, “is not just a view of things. … The world has created no living thing that it does not intend to destroy.” And whatever real joys exist are bound to be co-opted by the increasingly artificial world we are creating. “In the end,” Bobby remembers her saying, “there will be nothing that cannot be simulated. … This is the world to come. Not some other. The only alternate is the surprise in those antic shapes burned into the concrete”—that is, the incinerated victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Either we divert ourselves with virtual realities that simulate the meaning we seek, in other words, or we will descend into a nihilism that prefers destruction to boredom. One way or another, humanity is finished.
Although a certain brand of fatalism has spread in the past decade or so with respect to global warming, the predominant attitude in the developed world toward the various “existential” threats to human life—to the extent that we entertain them at all—remains pragmatic. Think tanks churn out white papers recommending strategies for the aversion of catastrophe; doomsayers are criticized for undermining effective political response; we reduce, reuse and recycle. Implicitly, we have faith in the power of our agency to forestall our own end. In the past, we are told, nations and institutions have proved capable of actions that mitigated apocalyptic risk. In response to my despairing gushings after seeing Oppenheimer, for example, a friend pointed out that anti-proliferation treaties have made the post-nuclear world a safer place. So they have, in a way.
The trouble, however, is that whatever comfort we could draw from such measures is undermined by the fact that we needed them in the first place. (In Oppenheimer, after explaining to General Leslie Groves that the chances Trinity will set the atmosphere on fire and destroy the world are almost zero, Oppenheimer asks the unmollified general, “What do you want from theory alone?” His reply: “Zero would be nice.”) As a species, it’s true, the nonzero risk of extinction has always been with us. There has always been the possibility of wipeout by asteroid or supervolcano, and in the long run something is going to put an end to the human race (the heat death of the universe, in the vanishingly remote case we make it that long). But what modernity has added to this equation is not just that the threat of apocalypse seems closer than ever before, but also that it’s vastly more likely to be our own doing. Even if the world hasn’t yet ended, we are therefore already confronted with a terrible problem: How are we meant to conceive of something like the intrinsic value of human experience if we are also a species that’s likely to bring about our own extinction? That is, if our collective life is not only essentially finite and fragile, but also contains within it a disposition toward cataclysmic destruction?
McCarthy’s fiction has long traded in such apocalyptic questions. Blood Meridian (1985)—a Western that follows the historical Glanton gang, a group of murderers hired by the Mexican government to kill Apache—begins with an epigraph from a newspaper article reporting the discovery of a scalped human or protohuman skull from three hundred thousand years ago. Civilizations rise and collapse, the book implies, and the motor of the whole process is an intrinsic and constant violence. The immense Judge Holden, an erudite monster who travels with the gang, speculates that of all the creatures of the earth, man may be the most “predacious yet.” The critic Vereen Bell has argued that the action of Blood Meridian serves as one long demonstration of Holden’s thesis that “war is god,” that force and violence rather than any moral or ethical considerations are the final determiners of what happens on earth. Or, as Holden puts it: “If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? … The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night.”
Unlike the God of the Hebrew Bible, human beings are bound by no pledge to forgo the destruction of the earth—and these days we have the technology as well as the inclination. Alicia’s summation of this argument, when Dr. Cohen asks if she thinks nuclear war is inevitable, is perfectly succinct: “people dont fight with rocks when they have guns. Etcetera and so on.” A similar idea emerges in McCarthy’s unpublished screenplay Whales and Men, when the Irish aristocrat Peter Gregory—who attempts to leverage his wealth to prevent the extinction of the whale, even though he knows this project to be futile—muses on the theme of inexorable ecological murder-suicide:
We will not be missed. When we have slaughtered and poisoned everything in sight and finally incinerated the earth itself then that black and lifeless lump of slag will simply revolve in the void forever. There is a place for it too. A nameless cinder of no consequence even to God. That man can halt this disaster now seems so remote a possibility as to hardly bear consideration.
Not if, when.
I learned of McCarthy’s death while preparing for the first session of a summer class I was co-teaching on The Passenger and Stella Maris. At first, it felt like an uncanny coincidence, although I had the thought later on that it shouldn’t have seemed like such a surprise. Having completed the work of the ninth decade of his life, perhaps McCarthy was ready to depart. In any case, the event cast a different light, or shadow, on my thinking about the novels. Death had already been closer than usual to the surface of my consciousness. Not long before, my uncle had died, more or less suddenly and unexpectedly, following complications from a surgery. His was the first death of a loved one that I had experienced as an adult, and for a time afterward it was as if everyone I knew had become transparent in their mortality. What I perceived when I looked at them, or thought about them—from my two-year-old nephew on up—was the fact that sooner or later they were going to die. Indeed, “sooner or later” didn’t capture it—it was as if their deaths had already happened.
The immediacies of life soon reasserted themselves; the present once again became opaque and distinct from the future. Even so, when I read the novels I was more open than I might have been to a world in which—as the shade of Sheddan tells Bobby in their final conversation—“all reality is loss and all loss is eternal.”
In much of McCarthy’s previous oeuvre, characters suffer—or perpetuate—world-shattering violence. Glanton’s gang slaughters peaceful tribes of Native Americans. The unnamed man and his son in The Road run from post-apocalyptic cannibals. What McCarthy’s final novels add to this landscape are characters who are more “like us” (abundant caveats notwithstanding) in facing a catastrophe that only looms vaguely on the horizon.
This “oncoming night” may be in the future, but in another sense the protagonists’ worlds have already ended: Alicia’s with a racing accident that puts her brother in a coma from which he is not expected to recover (he does, but only after her suicide) and Bobby’s in turn with his sister’s death. Even before these losses, each sibling already inhabits a world in which the one desirable future—the one life that would really be life—is barred to them because of Bobby’s refusal to transgress the incest taboo. One might, then, suspect that the sense of apocalypse shared by these characters is just a projection of personal loss and foreclosure, of their incestuous Romeo-and-Juliet predicament.
But the novels dramatize, rather, how personal loss—always a fundamental feature of human life—presents a new and deeper challenge when the goodness of the human project as a whole is called radically into question. Alicia suggests that our individual losses are more acute and unbearable in the shadow of man-made apocalypse, that our lives are deformed, literally and figuratively, by the ambient radiation of the catastrophe we have conjured into being. Her father didn’t feel guilty about the bomb, she tells Dr. Cohen. “But he’s dead. And my brother is brain-dead and I’m in the nuthouse.” She describes her childhood in Los Alamos, lying awake until 3 a.m. listening to the voices downstairs, and I think the books mean to suggest that in some sense all of us grew up amid echoes of the Manhattan Project, internalizing something that would threaten to derange us if we failed to repress it, and might still derange us even if we succeed.
The Passenger’s title is most obviously a reference to the missing person in the downed plane. But in his review of the novel for the New York Review of Books, Michael Gorra reads the “real” passenger as Bobby himself. As Gorra notes, passengers are “essentially passive.” All of us, then, might be seen as helpless passengers on a doomed human journey. What should our ethics be, in such a situation? Do ethics even apply? Some of McCarthy’s characters are preternaturally competent and—like Bobby—do what they can to take their own fates in hand. But it also seems to be a feature of the world of his books that the capacity for action is direly limited by an encompassing force which could be aptly described as evil, not only because it subverts our autonomy, but because it appears in McCarthy’s universe as an active and malevolent presence—if not “supernatural,” then something that exceeds any rational account we might try to give of it. Sheddan finds this, “the world’s truth,” so grim that to him “the idea that all of this will one day be ground to powder and blown into the void” is “not a prophecy but a promise.”
All this may make the novels sound like pure ordeal, and it is true that at times they are very hard. We know from the beginning that Alicia will die, and it is terrible, infusing one’s reading with a sadness that, for me, was akin to that of reading Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! or The Sound and the Fury. (Faulkner is often in the background of McCarthy—in his language as well as, in this case, the drama of incest leading to suicide.) Over the course of the two novels, one spends time with a character of astounding wit and consciousness fully aware that she is going to take her life and, with it, the heart of the one who loves her. In that sense, the novels themselves are exercises in dispossession, which is perhaps one of the ethical implications of apocalypse or of human finitude more generally: the need to recognize that in the end we will lose everything, a recognition that in turn may detach us from the overweening desires that lead to violence.
But as in that other McCarthyan urtext, Moby-Dick, there is a heart-aching enjoyment to the ride even as we know roughly where it all will end. The novels are funny: there are the Kid’s puns and malapropisms (“One more in a long history of unkempt premises,” he quips while dourly surveying Alicia’s messy apartment) as well as McCarthy’s usual black comedy (an accused arsonist is exculpated when investigators begin discovering the kittens that ignited six fires from a radiator). They are human and humane: in the moments of connection between Alicia and Dr. Cohen, between Bobby and his friends, like Debussy Fields, a trans woman whose story actually has a happy, if proximal, ending. There is also the characteristically stark and evocative language, perhaps less emphatically virtuosic than in McCarthy’s earlier work but no less (and maybe more) effective in serving the human story, which is a story of vigil as well as grief:
In the spring of the year birds began to arrive on the beach from across the gulf. Weary passerines. Vireos. Kingbirds and grosbeaks. Too exhausted to move. You could pick them up out of the sand and hold them trembling in your palm. Their small hearts beating and their eyes shuttering. He walked the beach with his flashlight the whole of the night to fend away predators and toward the dawn he slept with them in the sand. That none disturb these passengers.
Bobby is our Ishmael on the journey of his own divestiture. Even as he spins out the final part of his life living as a quasi-hermit in an abandoned windmill in Spain (yes) and thinking about the end, he dines alongside other tourists, works on math problems unfinished by his sister. Life goes on around him, and though Bobby cannot enter into it as a full participant, its goods are not lost on him. Very often we are told in some conversation that “Western smiled”—not laughed; the fullness of laughter is denied by his fidelity to his grief for Alicia. But still he stands outside life as a kind of saint, blessing it.
Near the end of the story, Sheddan’s ghost tells Bobby that he envies him his grief: “You called me a visionary of universal ruin. But there was no vision to it. It was at best a hope. You were the visionary. You had the tools for it. I’d no grief in my heart.” Little is told to us about Sheddan’s life beyond that he is involved in various illegal doings, some of which contribute to his early death from hepatitis. Nonetheless, he serves as an outsize member of the Greek chorus of Bobby’s friends, his acerbic jokes and prophetic musings part of the background against which we are meant to understand the protagonist’s plight, as well as our own. He sees Bobby’s grief as transcendental—not just a mourning for his sister but for all losses. Such mourning is an alternative to nihilism; that’s what Sheddan envies. To mourn something, or to mourn everything, is to affirm its absolute value.
In Blood Meridian, the phrase “They rode on” recurs over and over again, tolling the relentlessness and repetition of the gang’s violent journey through the waste. In both The Passenger and Stella Maris, the recurrent phrase is “What else?” One or another character asks some companion for more: for the elaboration of a thought, the articulation of an experience, sometimes just for another moment of conversation, but never in vain. There always is something else. The forms of these books pose the question as well, roaming across history and geography, ranging over metaphysical problems and personal travails—from the independent existence, or not, of mathematical objects to the anonymous crafter of the first violin. They are capacious to an extent that has been criticized (even I wondered about the necessity of a ten-page conversation about JFK-assassination conspiracy theories). But there’s something remarkable about the way McCarthy’s final two novels bound from mystery to mystery, not to dispel or foreclose but to capture the enigma of our existence. The “when” is coming for each of us—and perhaps eventually for all of us, collectively. But until it arrives, the two books seem to say, its presence on the horizon should heighten the sense that there is something—or many things that are all ultimately one thing—that we must desperately try to understand, and that this desperation can sustain us.
If it were possible, I would end this review by playing a recording of the final lines of Stella Maris as performed for the audiobook by Edoardo Ballerini and Julia Whelan, which I listened to walking around Chicago’s Jackson Park in this summer of loss. You must imagine having lived with the voices of two extraordinary performers in your head for five or so hours, affectingly and humorously and maddeningly circling around an impossibility, the impossibility of Dr. Cohen persuading Alicia to keep living in a world that has, for her, already ended. Their voices crack with the unspoken double meanings of their words:
I think our time is up.
I know. Hold my hand.
Hold your hand?
Yes. I want you to.
All right. Why?
Because that’s what people do when they’re waiting for the end of something.
I didn’t want it to be the end. I had had enough endings of late. And yet I was grateful for all of it, and I found myself wanting to go back to the beginning, even knowing what would come.
The fact of the apocalypse, if it is a fact, may not prescribe an ethics, may not say what each of us ought to do with our one and precious life. But McCarthy’s novels at least suggest that our lives must be lived in clear-eyed recognition of our situation. Whatever it is that makes life worth living, it isn’t immortality. Nor is the value of those we love lessened by the fact that someday we will lose them. Sometimes all of this isn’t enough; sometimes, for a while, it is. And if there comes a time when there is no one left to mourn, it still matters not a little to have sought with the extremity of our powers to understand what will be lost, and to treasure it, and so to preserve it for a somewhat larger fraction of infinity.
Art credit: Joel Daniel Phillips, “A Tidal Wave Two Miles High,” 2018. Charcoal and graphite on paper, 41 × 60.5 in. Courtesy of the artist.