More on Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger

By James.B

By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service

Trinity Test Mushroom Cloud 1ALBUQUERUQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS - August 9, 2015) -- During the Lannan Foundation and Santa Fe Institute's sponsored program called Drawing, Reading and Counting (Beauty and Madness in Art & Science) excerpts from Cormac McCarthy's forthcoming novel The Passenger was read by Caitlin Lorraine McShea and David Krakauer.

In my last article I wrote some reflections about the event [1]. And as much as I loved the art and science component of the program (I've taught in both fields), much of the interest I've received from readers concerns Cormac's novel.

Some have stated: you mentioned in your article that there is a lady character. Could it be that it is a man in the book, but read by a woman during the program? My answer is simple: yes, this could be true. Since names were not mentioned during the reading, Caitlin could have read a man's part. However, at one point in the presentation, Dr. Krakauer seemed to reference the name Alicia (or it's derivative). My strong hunch is that it is a lady character.

Another question I was asked concerns the length of the book. My answer: I have no idea. In a picture David Krakauer showed of the manuscript it looked as though it was roughly 300-400 pages. But a photograph can be deceiving. And I'm assuming that the picture shown was only of volume 2.

GodelAnd yet another question: does the book take place in New Mexico? Answer: Again, I'm not sure. There were references to Los Alamos and southern New Mexico, but the location of the character read by McShea could have been anywhere. The therapist in the book (read by Krakauer) asks the person, "You grew up in Los Alamos, but then you moved to Tennessee?" The therapist then goes on to ask about the time spent in Los Alamos. After a series of questions about the character's upbringing in New Mexico, the therapist asks about the people/scientists she grew up around, stating, "You couldn't have understood what they were talking about." Her reply: "What I understood was that I had to learn what they were talking about."

Additionally, the two characters talk about the Trinity Site in southern New Mexico. In a haunting description of the atomic bomb the character states, he [father] "could see the finger of his bones with his eyes closed."

Someone else enquired: you mentioned music in your article. What instrument did the character play? Answer: violin. There was a reference to Bach as well.

Were there other excerpts other than the one you wrote in your article, someone asked? Yes, there were several more, some long, some short. Here's one where the main character mentions the Copenhagen interpretation (an informal way to describe quantum mechanics):

"...Its like the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. What it fails to address is that the ability of the quantum event to eventuate without any help from us is a very different thing from an observation of the event..."

One person asked who Kurt Gödel was and why is he important to the story. Again, I'm not sure the role Gödel plays in the book. I can only go off the how his name was mentioned during the reading. Gödel is a hero of the main character. Maybe Gödel acts as a metaphor for mathematics, logic, and mental instability (sadly, Mr. Gödel was institutionalized later in his life, much like the character in the novel appears to be). As far as Gödel's life: he was an Austrian-American mathematician, philosopher, and logician. In his work he dealt with recursive axiomatic systems. From these systems we now have Gödel numbering. Additionally, Gödel was a believer in God, and sought various proofs for God's existence. A helpful book I read several years back is called Gödel: A Life of Logic by John Casti and Werner DePauli. I recommend the read.

werner heisenbergSomeone interested in the science portion of the evening asked about the various scientific references. Answer: there are too many to do justice here. What I can say is that the novel appears to be science-heavy (not in a technical way, but as an influence on the novel). Also, the references to the Trinity Site, Heisenberg, Oppenheimer, Einstein, and the like were of great importance in the readings. As mentioned, science and mathematics seem to play a vital role in the novel. In one section of the reading the character states, "Intelligence is numbers; it's not words. Words are things we made up." They then go on to discuss mathematics as a "spiritual undertaking," stating, "mathematics is ultimately a faith-based initiative... mathematics must transcend numbers."

Why the mention of Plato? Again, I can only guess. Platonic thought dealt with the theory of forms, a metaphysical look at good and reason. Maybe Cormac is postulating the age-old philosophical ideas in light of scientific thought, a dialogue of the metaphysical with the physical.

One interesting thing to note is much of what Cormac seems to address in The Passenger has been postulated in a book by Douglas Hofstadter. Called, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, it develops ideas of symmetry, intelligence, and mathematics in a brilliant format focusing on neurological cognition. The book won the Pulitzer in 1980. But my comparison is only a guess.

In the end, we'll need to wait for the book's release to grasp its full impact. Until then, we all wait with great anticipation. 

Photo captions: 1) Trinity Test Site Atomic Bomb. 2) Kurt Godel. 3) Werner Heisenberg, 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’s The Passenger