A review of Passenger by Cormac McCarthy

Reviewed by Matt Usher

by Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, October 2022, Hardcover, 400 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0307268990

There’s been much talk of late circulating around linguistic neural nets (or AI) and their ability to ventriloquize the dead. Ultimately, it is a permanent mystery. The dead cannot speak. There is nothing to be proven about what they would or would not say. 

Nor so can a linguistic AI be the voice of the dead. What an AI can do – whether one of these psychopomps or your average ChatGPT or CleverBot – is recite blank signifiers. What I mean by blank signifier is that the AI is capable of knowing what words and phrases have meaning to you, but not why, nor do they have the ability to spontaneously generate meaning. They are very adept at recognizing patterns. Patterns which require constant reference from the original.

This is not to deny these nascent beings the capacity of a soul. Rather it is to assert that individuality is not so easily copied as that, in much the same way as a child raised by a single parent. They may know what words, phrases, touchstones have meaning to the singular center of their social environment, but that does not mean they generate nor apply them in the same way. Once the original melody has ceased, though they may dovetail it, it is with a voice all their own.

So what is it like to signify blankly? Think of the times you’ve had to write a professional email or even something like a letter of condolences. Is the surface of your thoughts not clogged right away with the half-congealed curd of language? ‘Hope all is well’, ‘thoughts and prayers’, ‘best of luck on your future endeavors’. Words lose meaning and slot like Lego blocks into phrases. Soon enough, you too can build from parts the same exact email you’ve read from your supervisor. It can be a soothing and helpful heuristic process, and is not to be despised at all times. To the bereaved, a highly original letter might be harder to bear. But not always. And even “I love you” can be a blank signifier, meaningless internally when we mean it only to pull the proper lever externally.

Objects and symbols, too, can be blank signifiers. What is the true substance of a vehicle in a story? A weapon? Westernized learned behavior tells us that, if your protagonist is to have a magical weapon, it’s probably a sword. Unless you’re a viking – in which case maybe an axe. Ah, but then you must have a horned helmet, a beard, and a bearskin (serk is shirt in middle english, which leaves berserker’s likely literal meaning as bear-shirt). One is often told by those in the know that vikings never wore horned helmets, though. But these signifiers are important to us, we’re brought to associate them with things not intrinsic to them as ideas. So often these meanings intertwine and overlap. Eventually, you have a dearly held, yet entirely fictional, set of associations constructed from received ideas. Think of it like playing Blind Man’s Bluff – your understanding of the card you hold is entirely determined by the reaction of others. Structurally, you are deprived of any direct consideration of the object itself.

The danger is the stultifying effect that this has on creative language and expression. At best, a linguistic AI will give you a sort of IKEA story. It won’t have time to remove the stickers. Very often, you may have seen part A somewhere before. It’s an unavoidable problem for anyone who writes or speaks. How is one to chart a course between the sleek, bolted together familiar and the unsawn haphazardry that is the wholly novel? Moreso if one hopes to avoid an Odyssean number of casualties or the non-Shakespearean efforts of the proverbially typewriting monkeys.

Cormack McCarthy is a name I’ve often heard but never read. Somewhere in my young mind he strode across the variegated terrain of Americana that I most closely associated with the Turner Classic Movies my father would watch. Lo, there strides a signifier if ever there was one, John Wayne; beside him, Clint Eastwood (of Gorillaz fame). Cultural moments wash over the Earth as the tide does, carrying away most of the carcasses and leaving shells and loose sediment. The name John Wayne summons for me, unbidden, the shade of Ronald Wilson Reagan. And those serial sixes bloat with untold horror in much the same way forensic study corpses in the first compressed hours of putrescence.

In the interest of full disclosure (and how seldom we hear of disclosure that is not full), I didn’t like the authorial voice of The Passenger from the first page. But we’ll come to Alicia and her troubles later. To continue with the discussion of signifiers, here we have an author steeped in Americana: the American story, as understood by America, and the cultural signifiers best known by Americans. (A pause to ask – we always speak of a person being ‘steeped in’ something, but surely the touchstone is the tea and not the leaves most often cast away or used for cleaning?)

Returning for a moment to The Duke and Dirty Harry, we have McCarthy detailing our protagonist’s, Western’s, choice of a gun to purchase, a “stainless steel Smith & Wesson .38 special revolver with a four inch barrel”. (And this after selling his “St-Gaudens – or Standing Liberty” – coins to purchase a “black 1968 Dodge Charger with a 426 Hemi engine that had four thousand miles on the odometer. It had headers and twin four barrel Holleys on an Offenhauser intake”. One starts to grasp, if not the prose style, at least the prose substance.) I was familiar enough to follow him on the gun and at least part way on the car. The .38 special was commissioned from Colt for the express purpose of better shooting through native Filipino shields in the service of American Imperialism. And all of this before – to connect an earlier signifier – Ronald Reagan toasted Marcos, a man with a similar, if better reported, bloody and authoritarian streak.

This is not to say that McCarthy intends that connection to be manifest for readers. Rather, we are considering what it means to hold unexamined beliefs. Doubtless, revolvers are cool. There’s a good chance you agree if you fall within the gravitational influence of American cultural hegemony. Clint and John trained many of us to salivate like Pavlov’s dog when shown the sleek, shiny barrel of that signifier and its rotary chamber. Yet, wasn’t the revolver popularized in spaghetti westerns made by Italians? And weren’t many of the most influential of those pilfered wholesale from Japanese chanbara movies about samurai? By that logic, the American localization of The Ring may one day be rightfully taxonomized as a hamburger kaidan. Oh, and don’t ask Lucas or Tarantino which Japanese films they’ve seen after you’ve watched Star Wars or Kill Bill. Once the identifying features of Lady Snowblood or katana mythology are filed off, those signifiers can show up in the guise of Uma Thurman and the high noon duel.

To my recollection and, as if to spite Chekhov (even if McCarthy attempts a glancing blow at Dostoevsky later), the gun set on the mantelpiece never fires. The make of the car never matters, save for our estimation of Western. What then of this detail piled upon detail? Many seem to be stamped from the serialized casting die of the American imagination. Which of our levers does McCarthy mean to pull and to what effect? Should we view this in line with the narrative as a deliberate departure from conventional narrative and meaning? Or, to paraphrase Trotsky, is the octogenarian here puking up undigested ephemera, the motes of his cultural existence?

Towns and cities drift past, and disasters too. The novel’s voice has a very American view on disaster. In the midst of his meditations on his father’s involvement with the creation of the atomic bomb, Western reflects that he “fully understood that he owed his existence to Adolf Hitler. That the forces of history which had ushered his troubled life into the tapestry were those of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the sister events that sealed forever the fate of the West.” I think there’s a valid reading of the novel, not so subtly lampshaded by the protagonist’s moniker, of Western as an eidolon of the deflorated West, though largely of America. You can sense it in the way he passes like a plain breeze over the country, noted for his lack of judgment, remarked upon most for the singularity of his hurt: “What do you know of grief? he called. You know nothing. There is no other loss. Do you understand? The world is ashes. Ashes.”

But amidst these and other solipsisms we ought to ask – whose grief, and grief over what? Western is here in anguish in grief over his sister Alicia whose suicide stole all direction from his life. Neglecting here, of course, that the young man Western had practiced the art of incestuous seduction upon her as a mentally ill pre-teen. Ah, but the voice of the novel says – she was a prodigy. She was schizophrenic. She was special. Different. Though what are these mentions of a floor “littered with the stillborn forms of their efforts”. One would be remiss to think this as only a metaphor for their mundane spoiled efforts. McCarthy leadenly rams home the meaning home with mentions of calyces and pentralia. One feels for Alicia in ways Western could not.

It is Western, however, that the story follows. Certainly not the Pompeiian shades blasted onto Japanese concrete, nor again the human smoke so lightly invoked. Is this not the American dream? How easily the suffering of others is sublimated into nationalized self-pity. McCarthy is not inept at evoking misery. Yet his reach may exceed his grasp. Is not Western, the betrodden product of his country’s misadventures, entitled to his private depression and ennui? No doubt. Though one is, I think, justified in their resentment at hearing it in the same run-on breath as graver horrors, both real and imagined.

However saintly we might think ourselves, there is a solipsism to suffering. We can’t feel another’s headache; much less so their heartbreak. It takes significant effort to wrest ourselves past the event horizon bounding our own concerns. So, perhaps, the ease with which McCarthy makes his character the center of horrors inflicted on others by systems of which he is the direct beneficiary. There is something to the middle and later chapters where Western, as an indigent, on the run from ‘the Feds’ can meld in and out of American towns and the Spanish coast. Not everyone is so safe on the lam as a white American man feeling sorry for himself. Especially one who has scientist parents and an inheritance consisting of highly valuable out-of-print coins.

So again do we see McCarthy – who by his own account had been meaning to write about a woman for fifty years prior to Stella Maris – straining to write women, let alone the transfem character Debussy. I noticed, in the midst of the casual elitism of the novel, that McCarthy will occasionally use corrections, malapropisms, and admissions of ignorance as a form of characterization in dialogue. While it is not exclusively women who are on the correction and admission of ignorance end things, they are the most favored there, including Debussy’s “vertebrae… brae? Is that right?” shortly before she casually mentions being a “gracile mesomorph”. Of course, her male doctor told her that term. Elsewhere, the oft-slurred, carnie-coded Thalidomide Kid and the dive bar philosopher Sheddan are given free and wordy reign to utter their malapropisms and joking plays with language. It’s charming when they do it, the narrative seems to say. A form of gutter wisdom.

Sheddan, like Joyce, grades women according to the sexual favors they’ll perform for him in public. It is out of the bounds of the narrative if he deigns to return those oral favors. The Kid never misses a chance to sexually harass Alicia. He is written as something between a vivid hallucination and a drifting spirit or alien. We are stuck for interpretation between Alicia tormenting herself by proxy about the salivating predations of her psychs and her brother, or that the universe simply has this funny idea that those granted incorporeality and omnipresence should be sexist crackers wise.

Are we to take Kid and Sheddan seriously as characters? It would be too narrow to cast aspersions about this being McCarthy’s exact viewpoint. We return to the idea of blank signifiers, ones we repeat because we know they are significant, but may correspond so little internally that we know not how to analyze them. Sexism is one of these. Prod nearly any man – often even any masc-expressing person – on this globe in the right ways and you’ll get a comment or joke on the truth of feminine nature. It matters not whether it’s the biblical submission of wife to husband, the question of the role of woman in the hadiths, or the latest alpha male grifter telling his fan base that it’s the dictates of nature for only fifty American dollars a month. For a select few, this is a conscious act to enforce a favorable construction of human society. For most, this is an atavistic reflex, a learned dictate to perform gendered jingoism when the right stimuli is provided. The outright signifiers are well known there. Less so are the blank ones encoded as part of that performance, beneath the conscious – the guy who lingers too long or too close at the gym or on the way home, who jumps in to correct you or assist you unsolicited, who jumps to pet names and unwelcome caresses, or who can’t characterize a woman character without sexual assault or talking about her cleavage. So blanked are these behaviors they may be no more than reflex or, worse, thought of as part of the game of hard to get.

Returning, then, to McCarthy. He either cannot or does not want to understand women. At any rate, he can’t write them. What is communicated by Western being able to noirishly cold read that a diner worker has a felon husband, in an episode that goes nowhere? The depictions overstep realism; it is not merely that we are examining realistic sexism in action, it is the characterization and the narrative itself which wear the lineaments of sexism. Laudable, perhaps, at his vintage to hazard writing a trans character. Inclusion and all. For my part, Debussy was written with a strange understanding of the trans experience, one all too grounded in the hateful rhetoric of autogynephilia. Debussy is at least, I grant McCarthy, accepted as a woman in the narrative even to the point of being cat called by gay-bashing paratroopers. Ah, but this at the price of describing herself to her mother as a ‘freak’, her mother who, let us not forget, upon first seeing her transitioned daughter asks about the verisimilitude of her breasts. A curious quirk of the trans experience is sexism being affirming, in a twisted fashion. But can’t we do better than this? (A small note in close: we also have the narrative voice of Western telling us that we should respect Debussy’s womanhood. This will not be the last time that Western man is the final and elevated arbiter of things.)

Women are here understood as the linguistic AI would have them, as scantly ruminated idols. None more than Alicia who is a Grecian art piece readied for Western to plunder. And plunder he does – she is dead by her own hand before the novel begins. Did she love Western back? She is given little enough time to assert herself in any manner, her spotlight stolen by the sub-Joycean punning of the Thalidomide Kid and the straw man shrinks. Much like Shakespeare, McCarthy likes putting wisdom in the mouths of fools, and enjoys the same plausible deniability regarding his own thoughts. Stella Maris, the companion novel that exists in a seemingly divergent reality, is much worse on this point. Here we have the 14 year old prodigy demanding alternately for the hesitant, vulnerable 21 year old Western to press himself upon her in marriage and in bed. Something she still holds as good while she nears middle age. McCarthy depicts the raw stuff of life, we are told. It smacks of a completely unchallenged sense of the psychology of the victims.

With her, too, the elitism rears. Alicia is simply too smart, smarter even than the tediously worldwise and book-learned Western. Where Western can choke up the estuaries of a chapter with partially correct unbroken exposition on the charted course of Physics theory and the mental lives of its votaries, Alicia transcends mathematics itself and asks such questions, unwritten by McCarthy himself of course, as to challenge the very fundament of Western’s self-conception. Oh, and she has a mastery of violin construction that transcends her death; she is still asked after by the big names even after death, you see. What are we to make of this? Something that is very skewed when we hear of McCarthy preferring the company of theoretical physicists to mere people of letters. Nevertheless, what we have in our hands is a novel and not a peer-reviewed study.

This is not to diminish the skills and learning lavished upon Western by his creator. A physics scholar, a race car driver, deep water diver, not to mention all of the mechanical trade skills of the all American and the wherewithal to survive the winter off the grid. It’s lonely at the top, and Western is harried about by doubts great and small. The clearest central theme of the book is uncertainty. As we are oft told in different words, trying to define the word definition is circular. To understand something, you must create a framework within which it can be understood. Are you not rigging your scaffolding ex nihilo? So, briefly, does The Passenger casually do away with epistemology and the history of thought. One might think this highly convenient for one with an unchallenged ascendant position in hegemony but one is discouraged from having such terrene thoughts. McCarthy may well agree with the self-described ‘amused Pyrrhonic aesthete’, Aldous Huxley; Pyrrho, who suspended judgments in all matters relating to belief. Keep your head in the clouds with Aristophanes’ dramatized Socrates – the corpses don’t stink up here, they’re just distingué stains upon your lily white conscience.


Turning now to the matter of prose: McCarthy’s formatting is itself a slight challenge to this manner of analysis. The most notable of McCarthy’s is the lack of conventional dialogue formatting. I found it to not be a serious impediment. I can only remember a time or two I stopped to double check the current speaker or whether I was reading a dialogue or narrative block. We’re never quite confronted with the absence of the non-possessive apostrophe causing a contention between won’t and wont or can’t and cant. The text can be read at speed.

Not to say that McCarthy doesn’t have his pet turns of phrase or rhetorical formulae, as any writer does. He likes his half dollar words, apposite and not. Most of the time these are used to underline a break into the spiritual or philosophical, as earlier with the otherworldly lens provided by Western’s complicated feelings surrounding his sister. The author also favors certain formations, such as clipped exchanges of dialogue at the end of the chapter for bleak effect:

“You know I love you.”
“I know. Another time. Another world.”
“I know. Good night.”

By this point, the close of the penultimate chapter, one tires of the affect. It is the strain for pithy, cold meaning that leaves space for reflecting upon the silence of the unsaid.  In conventional narrative structure, these moments are built to such that they have place and meaning. Not so much in the vague twilight of The Passenger, where they often dangle as placeholders for meaning. A vacuum for the reader to fill, perhaps. Elsewhere, repetition underlines characterization – the Kid repeats himself when put off by Alicia, an expert at deflection. Certain notes are struck by the narrative voice – Sheddan’s distaste of being poured water by a waiter and the later petite elite quibble over the pouring of champagne by Western in a dinner in his deceased friend’s honor. Not a bad echo, though a somewhat patrician one to make.

I have little interest in accusing McCarthy of anything. The text indicts itself, and we are left with a melange of McCarthy’s interests (Americana, theoretical physics, cars, sad lonely men) and blank signifiers (sexism, mental illness as a superpower binary, Amerocentrism, raunchy gutter philosophy). What truth is here depicted? Is this the true world lurking under the veneer of writerly isolation from the hoi polloi? What is the power that these unchallenged assumptions hold over the western imagination? 

McCarthy’s is a world of semi-genius physics dropouts ruined by theory and incest (and perhaps theoretical incest, if we take the stillbirth scenes as nightmares), caricature women drawn from detective serials and low rent talk shows, and a pervasive sense that everything that has ever happened carries its greatest significance in the conscience of the western white man. The power of this signifier over its adherents scarcely needs exposition. For all of the misery of The Passenger, it can’t quite escape the very Catholic sense that Western is the most important sufferer in the whole of our cosmos, blasted corpses and sexual assault victims be damned.

About the reviewer: Matt Usher is a hopeful writer desperate to escape a miserable day job. They are an agender writer and musician and like poetry, tabletop roleplaying, trading card games (mtg and ygo), and professional wrestling. They are based out of Brooklyn with their two partners in a happy polecule. This is their first publishing credit. Most of their works are short stories but somehow the piece of lit crit got there first. If you want to reach out and/or contact them regarding their stories (please do), you can find them at https://bsky.app/profile/mattusher.bsky.social.”