I don’t mind putting effort into a novel and I’m happy feeling at sea for a while, as the shapes in the fog gradually become clear and all the parts fit together in a satisfying way. (The absolutely wonderful Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr is like this.) I enjoyed my gradually increasing understanding of Western and his sister. I was looking forward to the ending when I’d finally see the point of that long conversation about Kennedy’s assassination, when I’d finally get the relevance of all those academic digressions, when I’d finally grasp the key to the crime/mystery element of the novel, when I’d finally understand who all the minor characters were and what they were doing in the book.
But, guess what? By the time I got to the end of the novel, I STILL didn’t understand. I felt like I was standing on the edge of a precipice of understanding. So I immediately embarked on the second novel in the duology, Stella Maris, thinking this is where I’d get my reward.
Again, I was drawn along by McCarthy’s writing and finished the second book in less than a day. This second book is ENTIRELY a conversation between Western’s sister and a doctor in the psychiatric hospital she’s checked herself into. There are no quotation marks, no dialogue tags (she said, etc.), no physicality to ground the conversation in a scene (he leaned back in his chair, etc.).
Classic McCarthy. He’s not one to coddle his readers.
The conversation takes long, wandering forays into mathematics, physics, philosophy, etc. I loved reading it. Cormac McCarthy has shown us (again) what a brilliant — and weird — mind he has. What an exceptionally talented writer he is.
However, ultimately, the experience was disappointing, not profound. McCarthy apparently wrote these books for himself and perhaps a small handful of super-fans with mathematics PhDs. Great. Good for him. No piece of art is for everyone. In the end, my disappointment seems irrelevant, even to me.
I was looking for something in the novels that McCarthy wasn’t interested in giving. As a reader of The Passenger and Stella Maris, I was like a Martian trying to discover what a human face looks like by studying Picasso’s Weeping Woman. Even though the experience didn’t give me what I wanted, I nevertheless experienced greatness. And I still want to read every single thing McCarthy has written.