Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, Stella Maris, consists entirely of transcripts of conversations in a mental institution between a suicidal genius named Alicia Western and her therapist. Readers of McCarthy’s previous novel, The passengerknow how the story ends: Alicia has already committed suicide when The passenger begin. Stella Maris shares themes and its centrality with The passenger, but it does offer a new angle on his weird and bright mind. In the first book, we saw Alicia’s disturbing hallucinations as they appeared to her – as bizarre but undeniably real beings. In Stella Maris, we have a more external view of Alicia. His inner life is not dramatized, only described in exchanges with a therapist whose sympathy cannot entirely conceal his bewilderment at many of his comments about his mind and the world. Yet the novel suggests that she may have grasped the nature of reality better than her interlocutor.
It’s weird to call Stella Maris McCarthy’s last novel, as it is published only six weeks after The passenger. Although each book is isolated, they clearly form a single larger system, something like a planet and its moon in dark orbit. As The Passenger, Stella Maris is a fascinating and unsettling book, its essential blackness of vision powerful if not completely persuasive.
Alicia is a genius mathematician, an extraordinarily gifted violinist, and a voracious reader with a photographic memory. Asked by the therapist if she remembers everything she reads, she seems perplexed: “Yes. Otherwise, why would you read it? Although barely out of her teens, she spent years doing extremely difficult math for 18 hours a day. His lighter readings include classic works of epistemology, such as the 18th century philosopher Bishop Berkeley An essay towards a new theory of vision. Her therapist makes a few insightful remarks, but he often admits that he just can’t understand what she’s saying.
The chasm that separates them reflects much more than his intellectual supremacy. She has also experienced depths of mental anguish which she claims as the basis of particular insight. “There is data in the world available only for those who have reached a certain level of misery. You don’t know what’s there if you haven’t been there,” she says. The novel itself is in some ways an attempt to convey exactly what is “out there”.
The answer is not, primarily, the visual and auditory hallucinations that have accompanied her conscious experience since she was twelve. “I never saw them as supernatural. In the end, there was nothing to worry about,” she says of them. She suggests that rather than being the substance or cause of her misery, they were a kind of defensive screen. “I thought from the start that the Kid wasn’t there to provide something but to keep something at bay,” she says of the primary appearance.
The nature of this “something” that the hallucinations could keep at bay remains vague and disturbing. In fact, its unrepresentability may be an essential feature. Describing her dreams, she said, “I have never seen monsters. Creatures circulating carrying their heads. I always felt that the worst transcended the performance. You couldn’t put something together to make them look the same. You didn’t have the parts. It is a chilling thought indeed – a being or truth so horrifying that it literally defies representation.
This pervasive sense of fundamental horror may be one of the reasons for Alicia’s desire to never be born. Another may be her romantic love for her brother, Bobby, which is touted as a feature of her mind just as inescapable as her hallucinations and mathematical gifts. A third candidate could be his apparent belief that the deepest levels of mathematical explanation will always elude human comprehension. She also implies that annihilation by nuclear weapons her father helped develop awaits humanity. His misery is not without causes.
Perhaps oddly, given this misery, she’s also a delightful conversationalist. She jokes, jokes, speculates, reveals and conceals. McCarthy manages to extract suspense, emotion and genuine intellectual interest from a story constructed purely from dialogue. It’s not the first time he’s done this. Stella Maris is formally most similar to McCarthy’s 2006 piece Limited sunset. Both consist entirely of a conversation between two characters with starkly opposite experiences of the world. Both depict a character on the verge of suicide.
Stella Maris ventures even deeper into spiritual desperation and epistemic dilemmas. One of the novel’s most interesting suggestions is an expansion of Plato’s defense of the reality of the unseen. This kind of mathematical Platonism has attracted many brilliant scientists. The physicist Heisenberg, for example, wrote: “Modern physics has decided definitively for Plato…the smallest units of matter are…not physical objects in the ordinary sense of the word; they are forms, structures or – in Plato’s sense – Ideas, which can only be spoken of unambiguously in the language of mathematics.
Alicia makes a similar note when describing a strong early experience in which she grasped the truth of the equations. “They were in the paper, the ink, in me. The universe. Their invisibility could never speak against them or their being. His hallucinations are another kind of being that does not derive reality from visibility. “I don’t think the Kid doesn’t exist when I don’t see him,” she says.
“Reflecting on the entities in her own mind, Alicia said, “They want to do something with the world that you haven’t thought of. They want to question it.”
At times, Alicia looks implausibly like McCarthy. When asked to describe the world in a single sentence, she offers this: “The world has not created any living thing that it does not intend to destroy.” Such unmitigated gloom is a plausible feature of a suicidal character’s perspective, but when she begins to reflect on the unconscious with precisely the same example that McCarthy himself uses in his only published work of nonfiction, one wonders to what extent his character is more than a repository of McCarthy’s own sensibility and his lingering obsessions with death, math, physics, and the origins of language.
In a way, fictional characters are to the novelist who creates them what Alicia’s hallucinations are to her: semi-autonomous beings who inhabit a mind but also seem somewhat independent of it. Reflecting on the entities in her own mind, Alicia said, “They want to do something with the world that you haven’t thought of. They want to question it. The therapist then asks him why they want to do this, and his answer applies equally to the fictional characters that McCarthy took decades to create: “Because that’s who they are. What are they. If you just wanted an affirmation of the world, you wouldn’t need to conjure up strange beings.
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