Stella Maris

Knopf. Dec. 2022. 208p. ISBN 9780307269003. $26. F
Ostensibly the companion novel to The Passenger, it would perhaps be more accurate to regard McCarthy’s Stella Maris as one half of a concatenation, puzzle pieces fit together to clarify a grander whole. Where the former offered something of a narrative gyre, expanding outward until its very end, you could say that Stella Maris is a shot straight through its center, less diffusive in its approach. In The Passenger, each chapter opened with macabre scenes of a girl in conversation with a coterie of grotesque personages, and we come to understand this is Bobby Western’s sister, Alicia, who killed herself years prior. Stella Maris, then, moves back in time and takes the shape of a series of sessions between Alicia and her doctor at the titular psychiatric hospital, establishing the peculiar character who looms so largely and opaquely over Bobby’s life. Alicia is an ornery mathematical genius and musical savant who believes “you have to have language to have craziness” and who doesn’t so much want to die as to have never been to begin with. McCarthy injects a clear apocalyptic texture in the pages of Stella Maris, the sense of a foreboding terminus always near at hand—knowledge gleaned from The Passenger, yes, but also expertly realized in this work’s construction as a series of escalating dialogues and informed by the dehumanizing character of 20th-century ideologies about mental illness. The more contained plotting means that Stella Maris also feels made of more ephemeral stuff than The Passenger, lighter weight despite the potency of its odd personality, but that’s a small quibble as it’s also more purposely designed as an aesthetic product: a quippy two-hander that feels like McCarthy mainlined and is unlike anything the author has put forth before.
VERDICT A surprising gunshot of a novel that pairs perfectly with The Passenger and expands the scope of McCarthy’s oeuvre.
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