The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy

“I think a lot of people would elect to be dead if they didnt have to die.”

By turns, blunt and meandering The Passenger presents its readers with an unsparing tale permeated by existential angst. Cormac McCarthy’s prose is uncompromising: much of the narrative consists of dialogues: rambling conversations, mystifying backwards and forwards, sharp repartees, and unremitting monologues that could easily rival Dostoyevsky’s ones. The characters are preoccupied with their past, the meaning of life, human nature, war, history, particularly America’s, morality, death, with madness. Many of them are pessimistic and bitter, jaded by age and/or experience, weighted by guilt, and haunted by past choices and loves. They recount anecdotes, confess their fears and desires, and lose themselves in speculations and diatribes of a philosophical nature.

Much of the book focuses on the encounters and conversations that our aptly named protagonist, Western, a shadow of a man working as a salvage diver, makes as he traverses the Southern States and later on as he drives toward the Northwest. These talks he has, be it with strangers or old friends, are presented as if from a transcript. We are made to feel as if we were actually there, witnessing these people talk. McCarthy certainly succeeds in conveying the cadences of their speech and the kind of vocabulary they would use. Western, a good listener, often lets the other person initiate and dictate the direction of their conversation. His motives and thoughts remain somewhat of a mystery, but we can often tell what is important to him or what he feels about something by the questions or statements he chooses to dodge or elide. During his various exchanges with people he meets in bars and restaurants ​​in New Orleans and later when he has hit the road, we learn that he was in love with his sister and that his father collaborated with Oppenheimer and contributed to the atomic bomb. Haunted by his guilt, his sister’s death, and his father’s legacy, Western exists dimly.

Interested with Western’s story, are short italicized chapters in which his sister, a promising mathematician, is being belittled by her hallucinations, in particular by the one referred to as ‘the Kid’. His rambling yet frenzied voice dominates these sections, and much of what he says and does is of an absurd, nonsensical nature, on the lines of Alice in Wonderland. The sister’s voice remains absent, but whereas we ultimately come to know Western, as someone who is lonely and bereft, yet willing to let people open up about their thoughts & feelings, the sister remains an impression of a beautiful yet ‘broken’ young woman. We know she wants to die, that she is tired, that her hallucinations are a source of torment and exhaustion…but I couldn’t get a grasp on her the way I did Western. Had her chapters allowed us to hear more of her, for instance, in regards to her feelings towards her self, her family and Western, maybe then she would have come across as a more believable character.

Although there are women here and there, the novel mostly consists of the voices of men: men who feel forgotten, who are spiralling into addiction, and who view the world through grimey lenses. They share a preoccupation with questions of a philosophical nature, history, and science. They speak of war, of death, of politics. Yet, despite the depressing and often dismal mood permeating Western’s physical and metaphysical meanderings, there were many moments of wit, some really good banter, and a lot of cleverly delivered lines.
There are only echoes of Western and his sister’s relationship, as we are given brief glimpses and fragments into the forbidden feelings they felt for one another. Because of Western’s avoidance of his past, his sister is more of a quietly haunting presence.

I would be lying if I said that I understood the novel, as many passages and exchanges flew over my head. Yet, I found the writing compelling, especially McCarthy’s ear for language. The novel is certainly very atmospheric, even if the landscape we are being presented with feels desolate, an America from a bygone era. This is very much of a slow-burn of a novel, with subtle moments of introspection. Despite Western being followed by these men for unclear reasons, The Passengeris not a thriller, but rather an analytical psychodrama, where characters dispense historical, mathematical, and scientific facts left and right, all the while our central character is struck in a limbo of sorts. However, there is an obliqueness, an ambivalence, to the events that have and are transpiring that does add tension to Western’s story and his past.
The narrative is quite self-aware: from a reference to Joyce, to Western’s nicknames, to the idea of playing the role of the tragic hero in the story of your life. Despite the story’s gritty ambience there were many moments that I found moving, endearing even. The story’s exploration of grief and alienation were certainly thought-provoking and evocative. This was my first foray into McCarthy’s ouevre and I am definitely planning on making my way through his backlist.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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some quotes:

“You believe that the loss of those you loved has absolved you of all else.”

“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.”

“They’re sad. The dead are not loved long, you said. You may have noticed it in your travels, you said.”

“Good guys, bad guys. You’re all the same guys.”

“How come you never got another cat?
I just didnt want to lose anything else. I’m all lost out.”

“He was wet and chilled. Finally he stopped. What do you know of grief? he called. You know nothing. There is no other loss. Do you understand? The world is ashes. Ashes. For her to be in pain? The least insult? The least humiliation? Do you understand? For her to die alone? Her? There is no other loss. Do you understand? No other loss. None”

“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.”

“People want to be reimbursed for their pain. They seldom are.”

“You see yourself as a tragic figure.
No I dont. Not even close. A tragic figure is a person of consequence.
Which you are not.
A person of ill consequence.”

“she was right. People will go to strange lengths to avoid the suffering they have coming. The world is full of people who should have been more willing to weep.”

“A recluse in an old house. Growing stranger by the day.”

“Much has changed and yet everything is the same. I am the same. I always will be. I’m writing because there are things that I think you would like to know. I am writing because there are things I dont want to forget. Everything is gone from my life except you. I dont even know what that means. There are times when I cant stop crying. I’m sorry. I’ll try again tomorrow. All my love.”

“What was it she wanted?
Come on.
No. I dont know.
She wanted to disappear. Well, that’s not quite right. She wanted not to have ever been here in the first place. She wanted to not have been. Period.”

“I think a lot of people would elect to be dead if they didnt have to die.”

“History is a collection of paper. A few fading recollections. After a while what is not written never happened.”

“Okay. Are you all right?
No. Are you?
No. But we’re on reduced expectations. That helps.”

“I have a feeling that the shape of your interior life is something you believe somehow exempts you from other considerations. ”

“evil has no alternate plan. It is simply incapable of assuming failure.”

“A frail candle tottering in the darkness. All of history a rehearsal for its own extinction.”

“ Fathers are always forgiven. In the end they are forgiven. Had it been women who dragged the world through these horrors there would be a bounty on them.”

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