In a rare appearance in Santa Fe, NM, in 2015, Cormac McCarthy offered a tantalizing glimpse of his work in progress: “The Passenger,” a novel that explored esoteric ideas about math, physics, and nature. of consciousness.
Since then, readers have been eager for this novel. Widely revered as one of America’s greatest living writers, McCarthy hasn’t published a novel since 2006, when he released “The Road,” a post-apocalyptic survival story that won the Pulitzer Prize and became a bestseller.
This fall, the 88-year-old McCarthy is publishing not only “The Passenger,” but also a second related novel, titled “Stella Maris.” McCarthy’s longtime editor, Alfred A. Knopf, will publish them a month apart.
The intertwined novels — which represent a major stylistic and thematic shift for McCarthy — tell the doomed love story of a brother and sister. Siblings, Bobby and Alicia Western, are tormented by the legacy of their father, a physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb, and by their love and obsession for each other.
Much of McCarthy’s earlier work is set in the southern and southwestern United States and is grounded in his fascination with good and evil and humanity’s bottomless capacity for violence and revenge. In “Le Passager” and “Stella Maris”, he tackles more cerebral topics: the history of mathematics and physics, the nature of reality and consciousness, whether religion and science can coexist, and the relationship between genius and madness.
“It explores elements of philosophy and some of life’s bigger questions more directly on the page,” said Reagan Arthur, Knopf’s editor.
It is also the first time that McCarthy has built a narrative around a female protagonist. In “Stella Maris”, he inhabits the shattered psyche of Alicia Western, a math prodigy whose intellect scares people and whose hallucinations appear as characters, with their own distinct voices.
“The Passenger,” which premieres Oct. 25, is set in 1980, New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. The plot is set in motion when Bobby, a salvage diver, is tasked with exploring the wreckage of a sunken jet off the Mississippi and discovers that the plane’s black box, the pilot’s flight bag and the body of one of the passengers are all missing. With the pace and twists of a thriller, the 400-page tale follows Bobby, who is haunted by his memories of his father and sister, as he is drawn into the mystery of the plane crash and realizes he may have discovered something nefarious when strange men in suits show up at his house.
“Stella Maris”, which will be released on November 22 and serves as a coda to “The Passenger”, tells the story of Alicia, over approximately 200 pages. The narrative unfolds entirely in dialogue, such as a transcript between Alicia and her doctor at a Wisconsin mental institution in 1972, where Alicia, a 20-year-old math graduate student at the University of Chicago, is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
“It’s a format for Cormac to allow Alicia to explore her obsessions, which from what I can tell are Cormac’s obsessions,” said Jenny Jackson, McCarthy’s editor at Knopf. “It’s an idea book.”
McCarthy has long been fascinated by esoteric scientific disciplines and has surrounded himself with experts in theoretical physics and mathematics at the Santa Fe Institute, a research institute of which he is a director and which has been a staple for decades. But until now, these subjects have rarely been a prominent feature of his fiction. With “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris”, McCarthy more directly investigates questions about the intersection of science and morality and the limits of human knowledge.
McCarthy, who declined to be interviewed, has been referring to “The Passenger” for years. Scholars noted that McCarthy was referring to a novel set in New Orleans over 40 years ago. During interview 2009 with the Wall Street Journal to promote the film based on “The Road”, McCarthy mentioned an ongoing novel and described it as a long book that is “largely about a young woman”.
“I intended to write about a woman for 50 years,” he added. “I will never be competent enough to do it, but at some point you have to try.”
McCarthy revealed more about the novel in 2015 at a performing arts center in Santa Fe, where performers read passages from the ongoing novel as part of a multimedia event. McCarthy’s willingness to share parts of the book publicly sparked feverish speculation among scholars and fans that the publication of “The Passenger” was imminent.
Years passed and no new novel arrived. It was an unusually long dry spell for McCarthy, who published her previous 10 novels at a fairly steady pace since her 1965 debut, “The Orchard Keeper.” In recent years he has written a screenplay for “The Counselor”, a film directed by Ridley Scott and released in 2013, and his first work of non-fiction, which explored the origins of language and was published in 2017 in the scientific magazine Nautilus. But little new information has emerged about “The Passenger.”
Knopf’s editors managed to keep the new novels a secret for almost a decade. McCarthy delivered a full draft of “Stella Maris” and a partial draft of “The Passenger” to her editors eight years ago.
After the manuscripts were completed, Knopf executives debated how to present this unusual project. They planned to release the books in one volume, or in two volumes on the same day, or a year apart. In the end, they decided to release them separately but in close succession.
“Here we have not one but two novels by America’s greatest living novelist,” Arthur said. “How do we publish in a way that gives readers time to experience each but also gives readers the satisfaction of experiencing the conversation between the two novels?”
Knopf is planning a hardback print run of 300,000 copies for each book, and is also releasing a box set, with a first print run of 50,000 copies, in early December.
The novels will be released simultaneously in the UK, and overseas rights have sold out in many countries including France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Brazil.
The arrival of the novels later this year will give McCarthy scholars and fans insight into the questions and topics that have long preoccupied him, Jackson said.
“What do you do after writing ‘The Road’?” said Jackson. “The answer is, two books that address God and existence.”