Readers of McCarthy's 2022 novel The Passenger learn quickly that its protagonist's sister was a mathematical prodigy who committed suicide. That isolated fact provides motivation for the remainder of the novel. This companion piece published in the same year fleshes out that back story by providing transcripts of the sister's therapy sessions at the psychiatric hospital "Stella Maris" in the weeks before she killed herself.
In *Stella Maris* we learn that Alicia Western traveled to IHES and worked with Alexander Grothendieck on topos theory in 1972 while she was still a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago. Her professional life seemed to be going quite well. However, for reasons that even she cannot explain, she re-admits herself to Stella Maris. She insists that she is not there for treatment, but nevertheless has long conversations with Dr. Cohen (her therapist) during which famous mathematicians are "name dropped", topoi are discussed, and the underlying nature of mathematics itself is probed. This would be difficult reading for anyone unfamiliar with mathematics, even forgetting about McCarthy's unusual writing style. As for me, I am too tired of the insane-mathematician-with-hallucinations stereotype to be able to really appreciate it.
I read somewhere that the material which became *Stella Maris* was originally supposed to be included in *The Passenger*, but the publisher insisted that it be edited out of that novel and published separately. This may well have been a wise decision from a financial point of view. (McCarthy fans each purchased *two* books instead of one.) But, I can't help wondering whether it reflects a bias against mathematical fiction on their part. Would they have insisted on deleting this material from *The Passenger* if there was not so much discussion of mathematics in it?
I am grateful to Zinn Beckhurst for bringing *The Passenger* and *Stella Maris* to my attention. |