"Stella Maris" | Reviewed by William Winkler
“Stella Maris” is the continuation of Cormac McCarthy’s most recent novel, “The Passenger.” The first portion of the diptych centers around Bobby Western, a dropout physics graduate student whose life takes a seemingly random turn of events. In “Stella Maris,” set in a psychiatric hospital in Wisconsin, the protagonist is Alicia, Bobby’s younger sister.
Alicia is a mathematical genius who graduated from the University of Chicago at 16-years-of-age. She was a doctoral candidate in mathematics when she inherited a large amount of money and departed academia. She has been plagued by a descent into psychosis and visitations from a hallucinatory band of vaudevillian entertainers, led by a bald little person with flippers instead of hands, whom she identifies as The Thalidomide Kid. The Kid, random and profane, attempts to guide Alicia’s thinking into random paths regarding the meaning of existence and the consequences of decisions.
“Stella Maris” comprises seven chapters, each of which is the transcript of a session with Dr. Cohen, the psychiatrist assigned to her care. Over the course of the narrative Alicia slowly, often reluctantly, reveals details about herself that were alluded to in the precursor novel. At the heart of her revelations is the nature of her relationship with her brother, who is either dead or in a persistent vegetative state in Italy. As the specifics of this relationship come to light, Alicia’s plan for the resolution of her deep personal conflicts appears to clarify itself in her mind.
Alicia is initially depicted as coldly analytical, sarcastic, and defensive. Some of the conversations with her therapist are couched in the arcane languages of mathematical theory and quantum mechanics clearly intended to keep the psychiatrist off his guard.
Although widely disparate in format and style, “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris” cannot be read as anything but one large work, each being necessary for comprehension of the other. The reader who hopes for resolution of some of the story lines from the first novel will likely be disappointed. It may be that McCarthy intended those story lines only to add to the sense of otherworldliness that pervades the pages.
Those who have read McCarthy’s earlier works such as “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men,” with their raw descriptions of brutal inhumanity ,may find his latest pair of novels a more challenging, less graphic read. What these books have in common with McCarthy’s previous writing is a masterful use of language to describe and illuminate. It is well worth the effort to work one’s way through what is likely to be the last of Cormac McCarthy’s major publications.
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