Cormac McCarthy Gives Us a Peek at The Passenger

By James.B


By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service

DavidKrakauerSANTA FE, NEW MEXICO (ANS - August 7, 2015) -- The first word I remember hearing from Cormac McCarthy's newest novel The Passenger was the name Plato. Read by Caitlin Lorraine McShea, the line was classic McCarthy: a mixture of philosophy, science, and dare I say, theological teasing-all beautifully writ.

The opening lines were read in front of roughly 1,000 people-a mixture of artists, scientists, literature buffs, and the curious. Together we were gifted with excerpts from McCarthy's forthcoming work. But the evening was so much more than a reading. It was a confluence of the beautiful and true (at least on a scientific and artistic level). And it all occurred at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe.

In a program entitled Drawing, Reading and Counting (Beauty and Madness in Art and Science), the event wasco-sponsored by the Lannan Foundation and the Santa Fe Institute. To call the evening a success would be an understatement: it was sheer brilliance, an aesthetic and intellectual ride through mathematics, art, literature, and marvelous conversation.

Hosted by Dr. David Krakauer, newly elected President of the Santa Fe Institute, the hour-and-half program consisted of conversations with artist James Drake (who represented the "chaotic" component of the program) and readings from McCarthy's work, as read-in an almost dramatic fashion-between Krakauer and Caitlin Lorraine McShea (this portion represented the "controlled" part of the evening).

JamesDrakeInterspersed between the conversations and readings were slides of Drake's work projected on a large screen, sometimes accompanied by the musical compositions of John McCarthy (yes, Cormac's 17-year old son), and audio recordings of Cormac reading or telling stories.

It was a feast for the senses and mind.

The program began with the haunting compositions of John McCarthy and the art of Drake projected on the screen. McShea then gave us a peek into McCarthy's newest work, with the line containing Plato being read in a strait forward fashion, the words containing all the drama needed.

After a brief introduction (explaining how he got McCarthy's manuscript and approval), Krakauer went back and forth between the two staged areas, co-reading with McShea and participating in creative dialogue with Drake. Much of the conversation was based upon the artwork of Drake, reaching for mathematical and aesthetic connections, unpacking history, science, and art in a confluence of the liberal arts.

During the reading sections of McCarthy's work, Krakauer read the part of a therapist working with a brilliant mathematician and musician who appeared to be institutionalized (all read by McShea). We do not get the names of either character. But the words tell us enough:

"My father came in and found me there. And I thought I was in trouble," McShea reads. "And I jumped up but he took me by the hand and led me back to the chair and sat me down and went over the paper with me. His explanations were clear...simple. But it was more than that they were filled with metaphor."

Throughout the night the readings and dialogue went on, dropping names and phrases such as Feynman diagrams, Kurt Gödel, subatomic particles, collisions, weighted routes, equations, variations, and reality.

But the word "metaphor" could act as the code word for the night: the nature of using something to describe something else. In the case of McCarthy's work: literature to search for scientific, philosophical, and theological meaning. In the case of Drake's work: aesthetic and mathematical connections pointing to larger strands of meaning that transcend and conjoin computation and contemplation.

ArtworkMcCarthy stated it well. In a story he conveyed about a scientist in an audio clip, he said, "He didn't have a language yet. But one thing he understood is that one thing can be another thing."

Ah, the beauty of it!

To give a blow by blow of the evening would be a disservice to its impact. I recommend that you go  to find out more information on its release in video or audio form.

What I can say, however, is that the night was pure splendor. It was well thought out and engaging on all points. To view Drake's splendid drawing, to listen to Cormac's new work, to engage with the dialogue of Krakauer was poetry of head, heart, and hands. Of course one can only guess as the overall theme of McCarthy's forthcoming work, but here's what one can surmise from the reading:

The book may be in two volumes (or in one volume with two parts). Excerpts were read from volume 2 on this evening.

One of the characters is a woman, possibly institutionalized. Her father was a Los Alamos scientist. Both-sibling and father-are brilliant. The daughter is also a musician.

There is much allusion to mathematics and insanity, with references to Gödel and other masterful minds.

For the rest, we'll have to wait-the rumored year of release is 2016. But I can tell you are that the excerpts were engaging and tantalizing. Even my three children whom came along willingly-and loved the night-want to read the book when it comes out. Thank you, Cormac.

When Cormac McCarthy got up at the end to thank the people for attending, he said it best, and I summarize: In no other city would you get a crowd like this to listen to something as cerebral and engaging as discussion on beauty, madness, art and science. Of course as a resident of Santa Fe, Cormac may be a tad partial. But he may be on to something: Santa Fe is one of those places on earth where science, art, and literature converge with new meaning. So it was no coincidence that the program reflected the city.

But more importantly, the program reflected what it means to be human. And if beauty, madness, art, and science (and may I add, theology) converge in such friendly a form, then it's great to one-a homo sapiens of the hominidae family.

Photo captions: 1) Scientist, Dr. David Krakauer. 2) Artist, James Drake. 3) Artwork of James Drake. 4) Brian Nixon.

Brian NixonAbout the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, and minister. He's a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA) and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here:  or

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Cormac McCarthy, passenger