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Cormac McCarthy: Stella Maris

If you have read The Passenger – and you probably should before reading this book – you may recall Alicia Western, twin of Bobby, who commits suicide early in the book but who appears in the book, both because her brother and she had what may have been in an incestuous relationship and because of the visions she had of strange people, led by someone she called the Thalidomide Kid. However we start with an episode that was only briefly mentioned in The Passenger, namely she voluntarily goes to a mental hospital, called Stella Maris, for treatment. This not her first visit there. The book consists of her talking to (sparring with might be more accurate at times) a Dr Cohen.

While the plot elements we see in this book regarding her life and that of her family seem to be generally similar between the two books – both parents worked at Oak Ridge on the development of the atom bomb, they later divorced and both died of cancer – there is one major difference. In The Passenger, as mentioned, Alicia kills herself and the rest of the book involves Bobby who seemingly survives the events of the book. In this book, however, he had been involved in a serious car crash in Italy and is on life support. The doctors are urging Alicia to let them pull the plug but she refuses every time and then flees Italy for Stella Maris, as she does not want to make the decision. Unless Bobby makes a miraculous recovery, he will pre-decease her and, even if he does make a recovery, there is no mention of the accident in the previous book.

Accordingly we listen to Alicia discussing/sparring with Dr Cohen. We learn a lot about her. Her key interest is mathematics. She is a genius – in her view, one of the great living ones. She went to the University of Chicago at the age of twelve and graduated at the age of fourteen. She has spent much of her time since them immersed in the arcana of mathematics. McCarthy has clearly done his homework, as we get a lot of discussion about maths – its history, the key problems solved and to be solved, what it means and why it is important.

While much of it may be lost for those not involved in the subject, there are various fascinating points mentioned. If you had not become a mathematician what would you like to have been? Cohen asks her. Dead. is her response. However one of the more interesting discussions is whether maths exists independently of human thought. Other than Feynman’s sum-over theories there is no believable explanation of quantum mechanics that does not involve human consciousness. and No one, however inclined to platonism, actually believes that numbers are requisite to the operation of the universe. They’re only good to talk about it. Most interestingly she says I’ve posed the question to some pretty good mathematicians. How does the unconscious do math? Some who’d thought about it and some who hadn’t. For the most part they seemed to think it unlikely that the unconscious went about it the same way we did.

While she has spent a lot of time on maths, she does have another interest. She is a keen violin player so much so that when she inherited money from her grandmother she spent $300,000 on an Amati violin. With her usual modesty, she reckons she could have been a great violinist if she had devoted much more time to practising but maths took priority.

She is highly critical of psychiatry (No. I don’t sit around studying your tests. I find them breathtakingly stupid and meaningless.) She continually has a go at Cohen (who shows estimable patience) as she challenges his questions and criticises his profession. He is, no doubt, used to this. She tells an interesting story about twelve psychiatrists who went to various institutions claiming that they were hearing voices and were intermediately admitted as schizoids. However, as soon as they went to the wards, the other patients saw through them straight away and knew they were faking it and thought that they were journalists looking for a story. She will later say Mental illness is an illness. What else to call it? But it’s an illness associated with an organ that might as well belong to Martians for all our understanding of it.

So is she insane? Are mathematicians insane? Some good mathematicians have left the discipline. Exceeding even the number who have wound up in the madhouse. She mentions various mathematicians who have gone insane. As for her, she had been accused of insanity as a child. She suffered from synesthesia from a young age and kept quiet about it as she knew she would be called mad. It was an eye doctor who first suggested she had mental health problems (because she challenged him, at the age of four) and her parents then accepted this . She clearly has mental health issues but whether they are much different from so-called ordinary people – apart, of course, from her genius – is not clear. We also know that she tries to kill herself (drowning in Lake Tahoe) but backed out at the last moment for complicated reasons she does explain. Assuming she is the same Alicia as in The Passenger – and the story of her brother suggests, at the very least, an alternative reality – we know that she finally managed to kill herself.

The one issue that might be considered as insanity is the issue mentioned in The Passenger, namely the apparitions of the Thalidomide Kid and his various friends, which they discuss in a certain amount of detail. How much is her insanity related to her sex? Women enjoy a different history of madness. From witchcraft to hysteria we’re just bad news. We know that women were condemned as witches because they were mentally unstable but no one has considered the numbers—even few as they might be—of women who were stoned to death for being bright.

Dr. Cohen tries to learn about her love life. Though she loved her brother, she claims they never had sexual relations but were very close. She did have a fling when aged twelve – yes, she was precocious in that area as as well – with an older boy at high school but declines to give details, though we suspect it was, in fact, her brother. (I wanted to do it with my brother. I always did. I still do.)

There is no doubt that Alicia is staring into the abyss. She says there is an ill-contained horror beneath the surface of the world and there always had been. That at the core of reality lies a deep and eternal demonium. In short, whatever the reasons – despite or because of her genius, her parents’ involvement with the A-bomb, her unrequited love for her brother or something else – she clearly needs help.

As what I assume is McCarthy’s swan song – he is now ninety – this is a very grim book. There is no relief. Alicia may be a genius and have come up with some interesting mathematical insights (which, we learn, the world will never see) and enjoys her violin, clearly, with all her various demons, she was never going to be happy. It is a hell of a way for McCarthy to end his literary career.

Publishing history

First published in 2022 by Knopf