Cormac McCarthy Returns

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From The Wall Street Journal:

It’s a fundamental principle of quantum physics that an object can have no known properties until someone observes it. Most of us have been introduced to the concept through the parable of Schrödinger’s cat: you seal a cat and something poisonous in a box, where it exists in a dual-state, or non-state, of life and death until you pull the lid off and look at it. This isn’t a real experiment, since quantum phenomena occur only on the subatomic level.

But increasingly physicists are trying to impose the precepts of quantum mechanics, which is based in probabilities, upon the classical, measurable, firmly verifiable model of the universe. To do so consigns objectivity to the dustbin; reality itself becomes relative, since it requires a witness to bring it into being. Or, as Cormac McCarthy neatly phrases it in his novel “The Passenger,” “Nothing is anything unless there’s another thing.”

The Passenger,” out this week, appears in tandem with “Stella Maris,” to be published in December. These novels, arriving 16 years after Mr. McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winner “The Road,” have been rumored for so long that their own reality began to seem suspect. But the remarkable quantity of scientific theory they incorporate explains the delay. Together the books tell the stories of brother and sister Bobby and Alicia Western. Their father was a physicist who helped develop nuclear weapons with the Manhattan Project. Bobby studied physics, too, but dropped out to kick around the world before becoming, as we find him in “The Passenger,” a salvage diver in New Orleans. Alicia is a schizophrenic mathematics savant tormented by her ability to follow numbers to places that bear no resemblance to accepted reality. The two books stand in dynamic if often perplexing relation, each informing and undermining its sibling work. Frequently they read less like novels than illustrations of a long-contemplated hypothesis—like elaborate thought experiments demonstrating the strangeness (to Mr. McCarthy, the nightmare) of a universe governed by quantum uncertainty.

“The Passenger,” by far the more novelistic of the pair, begins with a plane crash. With a barebones salvage crew, Bobby enters a private jet submerged in the waters off Pass Christian, Miss. Everyone inside is dead, but one passenger appears to be missing, along with the pilot’s flight bag and the plane’s black box. In the days that follow, Bobby is questioned and trailed around New Orleans by shadowy G-men. Soon they’ve put a lien on his bank account, impounded his car and revoked his passport, forcing Bobby to live as a fugitive. In time it becomes clear that the mystery of the sabotaged flight is a MacGuffin that Mr. McCarthy does not intend to elucidate; what endures instead is the atmosphere of paranoia, and Bobby’s attendant loneliness as he is comprehensively stripped of his identity.

. . . .

Novels of ideas are not what one would anticipate from the author of the famously gore-spattered western “Blood Meridian.” So it’s worth pointing out that “The Road,” from 2006, is not in fact Mr. McCarthy’s most recent published writing. That would be a pair of articles from 2017 in the science magazine Nautilus, theorizing about the origins of language but also meditating on the workings of the unconscious. Since the 1980s Mr. McCarthy, who is now 89, has been a member of the Santa Fe Institute, a theoretical-research center known for cultivating unorthodox ideas. Readers who want to get anywhere with these two novels need to understand that they are partly the product of the author’s countless bull sessions with Nobel Prize-winning physicists. Such “lunches,” Mr. McCarthy says in one article, could run to 10 hours.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal