IAt some point in the last twenty years the idea must have simply evaporated: that it was time for the Great American Novel. For the novel that is a diagnosis of the times and an exemplary interior view in which an epoch is brought to a head. Didn’t these books already exist? Thomas Pynchon’s “Ends of the Parable” is a candidate, Don DeLillo’s “Underworld” or the novels of Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy was the only one of the three to make it onto the bestseller lists. He has gone from being a “difficult” author to the man who guest-starred Oprah Winfrey’s book club with his novel The Road and whose book No Country for Old Men became a four-Oscar-winning film.
McCarthy, now 89, hasn’t published anything in 16 years. The expectations are corresponding when two novels come out within a few weeks. They have cast long shadows, since 2015 excerpts from them have been read at the Santa Fe Institute, the topics discussed, and McCarthy himself has appeared on stage. He is one of the trustees of the non-profit institute, which conducts interdisciplinary basic research, and was in constant contact with the scientists working there.
The publication strategy is all the stranger now. “The Passenger” has just been published, in the original and in translation. The second novel, “Stella Maris”, with which he is as closely connected as the siblings are in the books with each other, will not be published until the end of November – as a kind of appendix, whose characters and themes are all present in “Passenger”.
The scope of both novels is not an argument. Die-hard fans don’t shy away from almost 800 pages either – the original is just under 600. And if you’ve read both books, even if you can’t write about the second one yet, you can say that this artificial separation isn’t good for you .
There is hardcore theory here
In any case, whoever starts has to be brave. It’s about hardcore theory, large-caliber models to explain the world: quantum physics, higher mathematics, thermodynamics. This has not been McCarthy’s field so far, one would have expected something like that with Pynchon.
McCarthy was the man of violent, sometimes apocalyptic scenarios. A cosmic indifference of nature towards humans spoke from his novels, as we know it from the films of Terrence Malick, whose visual impact has a counterpart in McCarthy’s prose, in its oscillation between high tone and harsh slang.
The two protagonists are Bobby and Alicia with the meaningful last name Western. A hunter finds Alicia’s body on the first page. Suicide. Bobby is a salvage diver, we meet him at a job in 1980. A plane crashed in the Gulf of Mexico. The black box is missing, as is a passenger. Two men are waiting for Bobby in front of his apartment in New Orleans. That’s how a thriller could start – but not with McCarthy. He tells of incestuous sibling love and a father who worked on the Manhattan Project. The two grew up in Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was developed.