Fifty years after the publication of The Orchard Keeper, his first novel, Cormac McCarthy appears to be nearing the release of his 11th, the long-rumored The Passenger. Earlier this month, McCarthy debuted sections of the unpublished novel at a live reading in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
According to Newsweek:
Passages from the much-anticipated book, called The Passenger, were read as part of a multimedia event staged by the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The reading is the first public confirmation of the novel and its title, long the subject of rumors in the literary world.
This staging of The Passenger appears to have been a part of a larger program entitled “Drawing, Reading, and Counting (Beauty and Madness in Art and Science),” which may give you some idea about the The Passenger’s themes. The program also featured drawings by the artist James Drake and an original musical composition by McCarthy’s son, John.
At least one spectator noted that the novel contains “much allusion to mathematics and insanity, with references to Gödel and other masterful minds.” More specifically, The Passenger makes mention of “Feynman diagrams, Kurt Gödel, subatomic particles, collisions, weighted routes, equations, variations, and reality.” The staging also revealed that one of the protagonists is a woman, a musician who may be institutionalized. This squares with what McCarthy told the Wall Street Journal in a rare interview six years ago:
I’m not very good at talking about this stuff. It’s mostly set in New Orleans around 1980. It has to do with a brother and sister. When the book opens she’s already committed suicide, and it’s about how he deals with it. She’s an interesting girl.
The novel is also, according to McCarthy himself, long — it may even be split into two volumes. McCarthy describes the project in the special features of the Blu-Ray version of The Counselor (a film he wrote):
I’m writing two novels. One pretty long novel, and one short, that are part of the same project really, and I have been working on them for a long time.
If readers are worried about McCarthy’s analytic and scientific turn, perhaps they shouldn’t be. The author has worked out of the Santa Fe Institute — an “independent research and education center…where leading scientists grapple with some of the most compelling and complex problems of our time” — for years. Like a retired professor, McCarthy apparently roams the halls and tortures scientific minds young and old with the eschatological weight of his observations on madness and chaos. In this vein — and given what we now know about The Passenger — I’d bet the novel hews closely to the conundrum McCarthy cites in the abovementioned interview. Here’s an example:
There’s certainly an aesthetic to mathematics and science. It was one of the ways Paul Dirac got in trouble. He was one of the great physicists of the 20th century. But he really believed, as other physicists did, that given the choice between something which was logical and something which was beautiful, they would opt for the aesthetic as being more likely to be true. When [Richard] Feynman put together his updated version of quantum electrodynamics, Dirac didn’t think it was true because it was ugly. It was messy. It didn’t have the clarity, the elegance, that he associated with great mathematical or physical theory. But he was wrong. There’s no one formula for it.
Anyway, McCarthy seems to thoroughly enjoy his time at the Santa Fe Institute. Earlier this year, the institute posted this scary video of the author proselytizing on its behalf:
Still, don’t expect The Passenger to materialize Watchman-like, quickly and out of nowhere. Even though he appears to be on the verge of completing the novel — at least to the point of staging public readings of it — McCarthyites will not likely receive it as a 50th anniversary gift. So far there is no release date, and the publisher has yet to reveal any substantial information. Rumors from the Cormac McCarthy Society suggest The Passenger will be published late next year.
A coda. Yesterday, a profile of McCarthy using a recent photo appeared on Twitter.“First time on Twitter,” the account said, “Let’s see how this goes.” Was he goaded by “the kids” at the Santa Fe Institute to join the “complex, adaptive” social network? Was he preparing to do publicity for The Passenger? As of this morning, the account is suspended.