After incubating for some 30 years, Cormac McCarthy’s next novel just made a dramatic first entrance onto the public stage. 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.
The occasion marks nearly 50 years since the publication of McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper, which won the PEN/Faulkner prize for best debut novel in 1966.
While academics and critics have long praised his work, the legendary author keeps a low profile, spending most of his time at a science and mathematics think tank in New Mexico, the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), where he is a trustee. Organizers at SFI confirmed to Newsweek that the novel will be released in 2016, though McCarthy's agent and publishers declined to comment on the status of the book.
Prior to the Lannan Foundation event on August 5, details about the book’s eventual publication were hard to come by. Now, The Passenger appears to be approaching.
That alone is enough to excite McCarthy’s substantial following. Steven Frye, president of the Cormac McCarthy Society, is more than a little biased when it comes to ranking authors. But there are plenty who share his opinion when he says: “I would rate him No. 1” among contemporary authors. “It’s bold to say that we’ll be reading him in 500 years, the way we read Shakespeare.... But if we’re still reading novels, then I think it will be the case.”
Given the author’s history when it comes to public appearances, it was a surprise to members of the Society (which has no affiliation with the author) when the event was announced on the Santa Fe Institute’s website.
The August 5 presentation was not your average coffee shop book reading. Held at a performing arts center in Santa Fe, the event was anchored by a discussion between SFI President David Krakauer, an evolutionary biologist and complex systems scientist, and the visual artist James Drake.
Krakauer saw an “unbelievable resemblance” between Drake's drawings and the themes of McCarthy’s recent work—such as madness, genius and mathematical truth. SFI, a network of researchers studying complexity through science and mathematics, was the perfect vehicle to present the works of both artists in a single setting. With the author’s blessing, Krakauer read over a manuscript of The Passenger and selected excerpts.
Onstage, Krakauer recited dialogue from the novel alongside a local actress, Caitlin McShea, who played the part of the book’s female protagonist. The readings from the book—interspersed amid a slideshow and discussion of Drake's art—covered esoteric topics ranging from the aesthetics of mathematical equations to the nature of knowledge.
There was also an original soundtrack for the event composed by McCarthy's son, 17-year-old John Francis. But the biggest surprise of all was a digital recording of McCarthy introducing the characters—the only publicized instance in which he has participated in a large public reading.
The math connections might strike book readers as odd, but anyone familiar with McCarthy’s best prose will recognize the prevalence of themes from science. Suttree, a sprawling account of 1950s Knoxville that is considered one of his defining works, opens with a passage describing a dirty river that is so infused with detail and complex terminology that it turns the refuse of a city into a stirringly beautiful linguistic riff. His other masterpiece, Blood Meridian, is a cowboy novel that includes meditations on technology and self-replicating machines:
“You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.”
-Blood Meridian First Vintage International, page 17
Other previous novels have subtly woven in science, but according to Krakauer The Passenger will place science in the foreground. “It's everywhere,” he says. Just as the author went through an “Appalachian phase” and a “Southwest phase”—the terms used by scholars to describe his early and middle works—Krakauer says the new book is going to be “full-blown Cormac 3.0—a mathematical [and] analytical novel.”
“I’m extremely amused by imaging what book sellers are going to do with the next novel,” he says. (Whether it gets dubbed “science fiction” or something else, it will most likely be displayed near a window or an entrance.)
A reading like this could only have taken place at the Santa Fe Institute, which is organized as an extended network of scientists and researchers. One of the institute's goals is to remove the barriers between disciplines. This is appropriate for a novelist like McCarthy, who has said he prefers the company of scientists to writers. Other authors have passed through the SFI halls, but McCarthy has been a fixture since around the time he received a MacArthur genius grant in 1981.
According to Krakauer, McCarthy is the editor of “an incredible number of science books” (just an Internet search away, for the intrepid) that have come across his desk when scientists were looking to turn their research into compelling narratives.
While other noteworthy contemporary authors—Krakauer mentions the likes of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon—have written novels around mathematics and physics, McCarthy is unique in that he actually lives inside a research institute of scientists, and discusses general relativity with them over tea. He truly is writing what he knows.
“It's going to be a bit of a revelation for fans,” says Krakauer of the new novel’s content.
Krakauer, who has traveled with McCarthy on many occasions, is privy to the author’s ongoing processes. But for his extensive following in the literary world, the search for clues about the new book takes a different path.
THE SEARCH FOR THE PASSENGER
The Passenger has existed in some form since the 1980s. McCarthy has taken decades to finish other novels, and is known to work on multiple projects at once. The scholars who study him, like retired University of Miami Professor Rick Wallach, often rely on networking in order to get clues about his progress.
Wallach has met McCarthy on a few occasions and has had conversations about his early work with McCarthy's brother, Dennis, during the “Suttree Stagger”—a bar festival in Knoxville. Talking to Dennis gave Wallach a small window into McCarthy's history; descriptions of the bug collections, rock collections and old National Geographic magazines that a young Cormac kept in his room shed some light on the author's continuing fascination with science.
“You have to get the right person in the right bar, with the right number of drinks,” to have these sorts of conversations, Wallach told Newsweek.
It's exceedingly difficult to learn about McCarthy's works before they are published. In the mid-2000s, Wallach says, the speedy publication of books like No Country for Old Men, The Road and A Sunset Limited "blindsided" scholars and fans. The recent proliferation of McCarthy material—across print and film—has only intensified the wait for The Passenger.
“Anticipation could really not be higher” Wallach says, speaking about his colleagues and friends in the "Cormackian" community. (They don't call themselves "McCarthyasts," for obvious reasons.)
Wallach first heard about “The New Orleans novel,” as he refers to it, when it was confirmed publicly in 2009, during a rare interview that McCarthy gave with The Wall Street Journal:
“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.”
Rumors circulated over the succeeding years. McCarthy hinted at the novel in an interview he gave for The Counselor, a film he wrote for director Ridley Scott in 2013. But the book seemed to be stuck in limbo. Wallach speculates—having spoken to people close to the author—that the story was becoming mired in its own complexity.
Now that the book has been presented in public, it would seem that McCarthy has resolved whatever dissatisfied him.
Three years ago, Wallach became the only known outsider to read an early manuscript. Researching Suttree at the Cormac McCarthy archives in San Marcos, Texas, he came across pages of what appeared to be excised material from the 1979 novel. It soon became apparent to him that he was actually holding an early version of “the New Orleans novel.” The papers had been misfiled. An accidental detective, Wallach had stumbled onto something profoundly new.
He seemed pained describing this realization. “It was a moment of moral crisis,” he says. “I felt a lot like Llewelyn Moss must have felt when he found that suitcase full of money.”
Once he realized there had been a filing error, Wallach says, he put the manuscript down and informed the relevant people. He will not discuss the specifics of the passages he saw, but he says they're well worth waiting for, reminding him of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. He disputed the assumption—held by many of his colleagues, partly because of the filing error—that the novel is similar to Suttree.
Wallach’s moment of “discovery” was the climactic culmination of a long relationship with McCarthy's works. In 1991, he picked up a copy of Blood Meridian in Australia, when McCarthy was out of print in the United States. It seems almost unthinkable now, but at that time—prior to the publication of All The Pretty Horses in 1992—McCarthy was nearly invisible to the public, even though his books had a significant influence on other writers. Wallach, who began his career as a disciple of Joseph Campbell, went on to publish scholarly material on McCarthy and was a co-founder of the Cormac McCarthy Society, an association of academics.
That original copy of Blood Meridian, which Wallach read in a single evening, is now so heavily annotated that when a colleague presented it to McCarthy asking for an autograph (it was Wallach's birthday), the author took one look and replied, "Holy shit. Where?”
It's not impossible to get within a few folks of McCarthy, as Wallach has done. The myth that he is a “reclusive author” has dissipated over the last decade, as he has become more popular.
“Reporters often have the conceit that if someone doesn't want to talk to them, then it means they don't want to talk at all,” says Wallach.
Although he doesn't give regular interviews, Wallach says McCarthy has always been active in his various communities, whether through SFI, repairing cars or—as rumor has it—games of pool at the local bar. These stories contain some amusing anecdotes, but compared to the wealth of literary, historical and scientific knowledge contained in his books, it's mostly trivia.
If you should happen to meet him, however, there's no reason to be intimidated. According to Wallach, he's affable and willing to chat about most subjects, from science and movies to amateur taxidermy.
Wallach's advice: “Just don't ask him about his work.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Rich Wallach first learned about The Passenger during a conversation with Cormac McCarthy's brother. He read about it in 2009 in The Wall Street Journal. Also, Wallach was a co-founder of the Cormac McCarthy Society, not the founder as was earlier stated, and the photo of Wallach was taken by Keith Rouse, who was not credited earlier.