“Nights were populated by light-bearing women, who found their way through the forest as if it were day” (Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)

FOR THIS PARTICULAR STRETCH of Pacific slope, Tapachula was town— you wanted to relax or raise hell or both at the same time, you went in to Tapachula. Frank tended to spend time at a cantina called El Quetzal Dormido, drinking either maguey brandy from Comitán or the at first horrible but after a while sort of interesting local moonshine known as pox, and dancing with or lighting panatelas for a girl named Melpomene who’d drifted down from the ruins and fireflies of Palenque, first to Tuxtla Gutiérrez and then, with that boomtown certitude some young folks possess of knowing where the money is being spent least reflectively at any given season, to Tapachula, where there were cacao, coffee, rubber, and banana plantations all within an easy radius, so the town was always jumping with pickers, tree shakers, nurserymen, beanpolishers, guayuleros, and centrifuge operators, none in a mood for moderation of any kind.

Melpomene told Frank about the giant luminous beetles known as cucuji. Each night in the country around Palenque, illuminating the miles of ruins hidden among the jungle trees, you could see them by the millions, shining all over their bodies, so brightly that by the light of even one of them you could read the newspaper, and six would light up a city block. “Or so a tinterillo told me once,” grinning through the smoke of a Sin Rival. “I never learned to read, but I have a tree full of cucuji in my yard. Come on,” and she led him out the back and down a cobbled alley and into a dirt lane. All at once, ahead of them, above the tops of the trees, shone a greenish yellow light, pulsing off and on. “They feel me coming,” she said. They rounded a corner and there was a fig tree, with near as Frank could tell thousands of these big luminous beetles, flashing brightly and then going dark, over and over, all in perfect unison. He found if he stared too long into the tree, he tended to lose his sense of scale and it became almost like looking into a vast city, like Denver or the Mexican capital, at night. Shadows, depths . . .

Melpomene told him how the Indian women of Palenque captured the beetles and tamed them, giving them names which they learned to answer to, putting them into little cages to carry like lamps at night, or wearing them in their hair beneath transparent veils. Nights were populated by light-bearing women, who found their way through the forest as if it were day.

“Do all these critters here have names?”

“Most of them,” giving him a look of warning not to make fun of this. “Even one named after you, if you’d like to meet him. Pancho!”

One of the fragments of light detached itself from the tree and flew down and landed on the girl’s wrist, like a falcon. When the tree went dark, so did Pancho. “Bueno, “she whispered to it, “pay no attention to the others. I want you to light up only when I tell you. Now.” The bug, obligingly, lit up. “Ahora, apágate,” and again Pancho complied.

Frank looked at Pancho. Pancho looked back at Frank, though what he was seeing was anybody’s guess.

He couldn’t say when exactly, but at some point Frank came to understand that this bearer of light was his soul, and that all the fireflies in the tree were the souls of everyone who had ever passed through his life, even at a distance, even for a heartbeat and a half, that there existed such a tree for each person in Chiapas, and though this suggested that the same soul must live on a number of trees, they all went to make up a single soul, really, in the same way that light was indivisible. “In the same way,” amplified Günther, “that our Savior could inform his disciples with a straight face that bread and wine were indistinguishable from his body and blood. Light, in any case, among these Indians of Chiapas, occupies an analogous position to flesh among Christian peoples. It is living tissue. As the brain is the outward and visible expression of the Mind.”

–From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.

This passage illustrates some of the novel’s grand themes—the visible and invisible worlds; the tangible, the real and the metaphysical something that might be behind it—and light, of course. I don’t know if I can muster anything else to say about it right now—I’ve enjoyed Against the Day—it’s funny, erudite, sprawling, etc.—but it’s very very long (part of the pleasure too, no doubt). Happy to be in the homestretch.

 

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