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Stella Maris

Review

Stella Maris

» Click here to read Joe Hartlaub's review of THE PASSENGER, the first volume in The Passenger series.
 


 

The publication of STELLA MARIS completes Cormac McCarthy’s long-anticipated literary work that has been neatly divided between this volume and the newly released THE PASSENGER. STELLA MARIS is about half the length of THE PASSENGER; though somewhat different from its predecessor in its telling, it is no less compelling.

While THE PASSENGER is told primarily from the troubled point of view of Bobby Western, STELLA MARIS presents the perspective of Alicia, his brilliant and even more disturbed younger sister. The story begins in October 1972. Alicia, a mathematical prodigy and doctoral candidate in mathematics, has been readmitted on a voluntary basis to Stella Maris, a Wisconsin facility that takes care of psychiatric medical patients. The narrative is told entirely (except for a brief medical report found at the beginning of the book) in the form of a transcript, documenting a series of what are intended to be therapy sessions between Alicia and Dr. Cohen, a staff psychiatrist who is also a professor at the University of Wisconsin.

"You may need to give up your favorite author for a while simply to avoid comparing your next reading experience too harshly against this sprawling and disturbing work, which at the end of the day is nothing short of incomparable and not to be missed."

Given McCarthy’s wont to eschew quotation marks and attribution, readers are left to their own devices to determine who is saying what to who. This is a bit daunting at first but is not as difficult as it might seem. Readers can begin to discern the voice of each speaker after a few pages, as the question-and-answer and give-and-take of their interactions gradually reveal and distinguish the personalities involved. Cohen, the trained and experienced professional, almost immediately loses control of the sessions, even as he appears to be unaware that he has done so. This sets the tone for what follows. The ultimate problem, wonderfully and skillfully set up by McCarthy, is that it is difficult for Cohen (as well as readers) to fully believe the veracity of Alicia’s statements.

Therein lies the brilliance of STELLA MARIS. Alicia is so beyond Cohen in every way that he barely can keep from drowning in her wake. When he begins to approach the threshold of the truth (at least as she sees it), she goes spinning away into a discussion of the practical application of mathematics and philosophy as a means of defining reality (to the extent that such can be defined). This, in turn, raises many interesting questions regarding the accuracy of Alicia’s observations and beliefs. It is also not always obvious when Cohen is being put on without even so much as a wink to the audience. In Alicia’s world of mathematics informed by philosophy with a nod to physics, the possibilities and the realities might even coexist in equal parts.

As might be expected, the descriptions of certain events occasionally vary in degrees between one book and viewpoint and the other. These initially might be considered to be he said/she said differences. An offhand revelation then turns everything that has gone before in both volumes inside out and upside down. It is presented so quietly that a less-than-attentive reader might miss it entirely. That would be unfortunate, given that Alicia’s account at that point explains almost all of the unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries left at the conclusion of THE PASSENGER without specifically referencing them before she knocks over the whole carefully constructed chessboard.

As a result, you may feel as if your head is going to explode while reading STELLA MARIS. Serve up that feeling with some self-congratulations. It means that you were paying attention. I certainly don’t recall ever encountering anything quite as deep, dark and complex as this book and THE PASSENGER. You may need to give up your favorite author for a while simply to avoid comparing your next reading experience too harshly against this sprawling and disturbing work, which at the end of the day is nothing short of incomparable and not to be missed.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 26, 2022

Stella Maris
by Cormac McCarthy

  • Publication Date: December 6, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0307269000
  • ISBN-13: 9780307269003