During a rare appearance in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2015, Cormac McCarthy offered a tantalizing glimpse of his work in progress: “The Passenger,” a novel that explored esoteric ideas about math, physics and the nature of consciousness.
Readers have been eager for the novel ever since. Widely revered as one of the greatest living American writers, McCarthy has not published a novel since 2006, when he released “The Road,” a post-apocalyptic survival story that won the Pulitzer Prize and became a best seller.
This fall, McCarthy, 88, is publishing not only “The Passenger,” but also a second, related novel, titled “Stella Maris.” McCarthy’s longtime publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, will release them one month apart.
The intertwined novels — which represent a major stylistic and thematic departure for McCarthy — tell the doomed love story of a brother and sister. The siblings, Bobby and Alicia Western, are tormented by the legacy of their father, a physicist who helped develop the atom bomb, and by their love for and obsession with one another.
Much of McCarthy’s earlier work is set in the American South and Southwest, and hinges on his fascination with good and evil and humanity’s bottomless capacity for violence and vengeance. In “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris,” he tackles more cerebral subjects: the history of math and physics, the nature of reality and consciousness, whether religion and science can coexist, and the relationship between genius and madness.
“He’s exploring elements of philosophy and some of the bigger life questions more directly on the page,” said Reagan Arthur, the publisher of Knopf.
It’s also the first time that McCarthy has built a narrative around a female protagonist. In “Stella Maris,” he inhabits the shattered psyche of Alicia Western, a math prodigy whose intellect frightens people and whose hallucinations appear as characters, with their own distinct voices.
“The Passenger,” which comes out on Oct. 25, takes place in 1980, in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. The plot is set in motion when Bobby, a salvage diver, gets assigned to explore the wreckage of a sunken jet off the coast of Mississippi, and discovers that the plane’s black box, the pilot’s flight bag and the body of one of the passengers are all missing. With the pace and twists of a thriller, the 400-page narrative follows Bobby, who is haunted by his memories of his father and sister, as he gets drawn into the mystery of the plane crash, and realizes he may have uncovered something nefarious when strange men in suits show up at his home.
“Stella Maris,” which will be released on Nov. 22 and serves as a coda to “The Passenger,” tells Alicia’s story, over roughly 200 pages. The narrative unfolds entirely in dialogue, as a transcript between Alicia and her doctor at a psychiatric institution in Wisconsin in 1972, where Alicia, a 20-year-old doctoral candidate in mathematics at the University of Chicago, receives a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.
“It’s a format for Cormac to allow Alicia to explore her obsessions, which from what I can tell happen to be Cormac’s obsessions,” said Jenny Jackson, McCarthy’s editor at Knopf. “It’s a book of ideas.”
McCarthy has long been fascinated with esoteric scientific disciplines, and has surrounded himself with experts in theoretical physics and mathematics at the Santa Fe Institute, a research institute where he is a trustee and has been a fixture for decades. But until now, those subjects have rarely been a prominent feature of his fiction. With “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris,”McCarthy is more directly investigating questions about the intersection of science and morality and the limits of human knowledge.
McCarthy, who declined to be interviewed, has been alluding to “The Passenger” for years. Scholars have noted that McCarthy referred to a novel set in New Orleans more than 40 years ago. During a 2009 interview with The Wall Street Journal to promote the movie based on “The Road,” McCarthy mentioned a novel in progress and described it as a long book that is “largely about a young woman.”
“I was planning on writing about a woman for 50 years,” he added. “I will never be competent enough to do so, but at some point you have to try.”
McCarthy revealed more about the novel in 2015 at a performing arts center in Santa Fe, where performers read passages of the novel in progress as part of a multimedia event. McCarthy’s willingness to share portions of the book publicly prompted feverish speculation among scholars and fans that the publication of “The Passenger” was imminent.
Years passed, and no new novel arrived. It was an unusually long dry spell for McCarthy, who has released his 10 earlier novels at a fairly steady clip ever since his 1965 debut, “The Orchard Keeper.” In recent years, he’s written a screenplay for “The Counselor,” a film that was directed by Ridley Scott and released in 2013, and his first work of nonfiction, which explored the origins of language and was published in 2017 in the scientific magazine Nautilus. But little new information emerged about “The Passenger.”
Editors at Knopf managed to keep the new novels secret for nearly a decade. McCarthy delivered a full draft of “Stella Maris” and a partial draft of “The Passenger” to his editors there eight years ago.
When the manuscripts were completed, executives at Knopf debated how to package the unusual project. They considered publishing the books as a single volume, or as two volumes on the same day, or a year apart. Ultimately, they settled on releasing them separately but in close succession.
“Here we have not one but two novels by pretty much America’s greatest living novelist,” Arthur said. “How do we publish in a way that gives readers time to experience each one but also gives readers the satisfaction of experiencing the conversation between the two novels?”
Knopf is planning a hardcover printing of 300,000 copies for each book, and is also releasing a box set, with a first printing of 50,000 copies, in early December.
The novels will be released simultaneously in the United Kingdom, and foreign rights have sold in numerous countries, including France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Brazil.
The arrival of the novels later this year will give McCarthy scholars and fans insight into questions and subjects that have long preoccupied him, Jackson said.
“What do you do after you’ve written ‘The Road’?” Jackson said. “The answer is, two books that take on God and existence.”