The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy

Our Rating
Author: Cormac McCarthy

Category: Fiction, Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945), Thriller / suspense

Book Format: Hardback

Publisher: Picador

ISBN: 9780330457422

RRP: $45.00

It’s been a decade since McCarthy’s last book and it’s immediately apparent that not a minute was wasted – the depth and breadth of this novel are breathtaking. The plot is simple enough: Bobby Western, a salvage diver, assesses a submerged plane with one passenger and the black box mysteriously missing. Western is then shadowed by (unnamed, faceless) agents. This plot, though, is merely a stepping-off point. ‘The passenger’ is really Bobby, travelling through life. He’s not been provided with a map.

Bobby’s the son of a physicist who was involved in the making of the atomic bomb. He trained as a physicist himself. His sister, Alice, is a mathematician. Her intelligence is stratospheric but her mental health is fragile. The siblings’ love for each other is singular. Alice’s death haunts Bobby and he struggles to find meaning in his existence.

Alice has her own narrative (with chapters in italics) documenting the psychotic visions of her schizophrenia. The characterisation within her hallucinations is a unique blend of tragedy and comedy. The one constant is The Thalidomide Kid, a short-statured ringleader with flippers for arms who arranges vaudeville-style acts for Alice in the hope of making her life more bearable. Both are disappointed in the quality of the entertainment.

Bobby tries to comprehend the vicissitudes of life, which has now been taken out of his control. His dialogue with secondary characters reads like a play, with snappy two-handed repartee and stand-alone soliloquies. Chief among these characters is Kline, a detective Bobby hires (with funds now frozen by the authorities) to investigate his options. As an aside, Kline has a convincing argument as to those responsible for JFK’s assassination. The ‘wise fool’ literary paradox is also explored with Jeffery, an asylum inmate and friend of Alice.

The narrative pays homage to the absurdism of Beckett (even paraphrasing his famous, ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on,’), while also evoking the psychological self-exploration of a Stoppard play. This is a story of life, love, loss, fate and agency. Any number of sentences are philosophical bones the reader can take away and chew on. It’s extraordinary literature and deserves way more than five stars.

Book reviewed by Bob Moore

Read more reviews for Cormac McCarthy’s books here.

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