Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy review – a slow-motion study of obliteration

Some books arrive predusted with the shimmer of literary myth. Stella Maris is one of them: Cormac McCarthy’s 12th – and likely final – novel, a tale concocted at the Santa Fe Institute, “a thinktank for maverick brainiacs” where the 89-year-old author spends his days discoursing with quantum physicists and clacking away on his portable typewriter, marinating in genius.

For a writer who spurns the conventions of punctuation, Stella Maris feels a lot like a full stop, a parting pronouncement on the whole sordid human experiment. It’s the second McCarthy novel to be published this year – a companion volume to The Passenger, released in late October. After 16 years of literary silence, McCarthy has produced a drought-busting, brain-vexing double act: first, a nihilistic vaudeville; now, its austere twin.

If that weren’t enough mythic glitter, Stella Maris is helmed by the first female protagonist McCarthy has dared to write since 1968. “I was planning on writing about a woman for 50 years,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2009. “I will never be competent enough to do so, but at some point you have to try.” How arduous he makes it all sound – plumbing the treacherous, alien depths of a ladybrain.

McCarthy’s grand attempt at cross-gender empathy is Alicia, a former child prodigy turned rogue mathematician. Stella Maris opens in the autumn of 1972 when the 20-year-old checks herself into a private psychiatric clinic in Wisconsin. She arrives with a bag full of cash and an accompanying cast of hallucinations led by a flipper-handed dwarf who calls himself “the Thalidomide Kid” (the grating, high-literary equivalent of Jar Jar Binks). A world away, on life support in a European hospital, Alicia’s brother, Bobby, lies braindead. Or so she thinks. (The Passenger tells his post-coma story.)

Related: The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy review – a deep dive into the abyss

Women, I am repeatedly told, don’t like – don’t get – Cormac McCarthy. It’s the kind of patronising nonsense that gets levelled at us when we point out the converse: that McCarthy’s fiction doesn’t get – doesn’t like – women. When female characters do appear in his pages, they are cowards, victims and sexpots: sirenic doom-bringers, cheetah-owning dommes, simpering twits and bad mothers. It’s often possible to admire the Pulitzer prize winner despite his paper-thin girls (see also Roth, Updike, Mailer and all the other cocksure Americans). Not in this novel. Stella Maris is a transcript of Alicia’s therapy sessions. The book hangs on her voice, and that voice is preposterous.

Alicia is the character you’d invent if you set out to skewer McCarthy’s frontier-fawning machoism. She’s a gordian knot of pathologies: synaesthetic, schizophrenic, autistic, anorexic, nihilistic, suicidal and in love with her brother. She can read clocks backwards, and play virtuoso violin. She’s also “extremely good looking”. And a lesbian (although her psychiatrist, Dr Cohen, has his doubts: “I don’t think so,” he tells her. “You flirt with me for one thing”). Listening to Bach is the closest she comes to joy.

The grotty little mystery at the heart of Stella Maris is just how far Alicia has taken her brotherly lust

If you turned Stella Maris into a drinking game – a shot of Appalachian moonshine for every eye roll – you’d be hammered before the end of chapter one (long before McCarthy’s “joke” about Jewish mathematicians; or Alicia’s confession that she was “a twelve-year-old slut”). There’s the link McCarthy makes between Alicia’s madness and her menstrual cycle; her certainty that motherhood is the cure for all her existential woes (“If I had a child I wouldnt care about reality”); her atomically weaponised daddy issues (Alicia’s father was one of the physicists on the Manhattan Project). The grotty little mystery at the heart of Stella Maris is just how far Alicia has taken her brotherly lust. It’s an incestuous subplot that would make John Irving proud, and one McCarthy has used before – the last time he placed a woman at the centre of a book (Rinthy in Outer Dark is pregnant with her brother’s child).

Alicia works in “topos theory”, at the sharp frontier of mathematical thought. In case readers miss the analogy, her last name is Western. And like the grand dream of the American west, our beautiful heroine is doomed. Grieving for her brother, and disillusioned by maths, Alicia is destined to kill herself (in the opening scene of The Passenger, McCarthy describes her dangling body like a gruesome Christmas bauble). With no prospect of hope, Stella Maris is the literary equivalent of a snuff film – a slow-motion study in obliteration. “I’ve always had the idea that I didn’t want to be found,” Alicia explains. “That if you died and nobody knew about it that would be as close as you could get to never having been here in the first place.”

Alicia’s conversations with Dr Cohen are combative, cerebral and theory-heavy (Kant, Wittgenstein, Feynman, Gödel): less a therapeutic dialogue than a Platonic one. The questions the pair tackle range from the eternal (is the self an illusion?); to the mind-knotting (if mathematical objects exist independent of human thought, what else are they independent of?); to the hazy, late-night realm of the weed-addled (why is a dying dolphin’s last breath not considered an act of suicide?). It would be funny if this book were not so certain of its own cleverness. “I want to be revered,” Alicia declares, “I want to be entered like a cathedral.” It feels like a tacit instruction for readers. And it’s working; the critical reception of McCarthy’s late-act duo has been steeped – largely – in lit-bro awe.

But Alicia is less a character than a receptacle, a dumping ground for eight decades of snarled (and snarling) ideas. As her conversations with Dr Cohen deepen, she slips into McCarthy’s own narrative voice, with all its rococo cadences and tell-tale tics (“olivedrab”, “moonminded”, “girljuice”). It’s a grotesque kind of irony that the author’s most risible creation is the closest thing he’s given us to an avatar.

“If you had to say something definitive about the world in a single sentence what would that sentence be?” Dr Cohen asks Alicia. “It would be this,” she answers. “The world has created no living thing that it does not intend to destroy.” It’s textbook McCarthy nihilism, boiled down to a noxious concentrate: no country for old mathematicians. And if it once felt daring – the dust-hearted cruelty, the cosmic indifference – it now feels trite. Perhaps that’s the true McCarthy mythos: he spent his career staring into the void, and now it’s staring back.

• Stella Maris is published by Picador (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy Delivery charges may apply.