Suttree wiped his plate with a piece of bread and sat back. He fell to studying the variety of moths pressed to the glass, resting his elbows on the sill and his chin on the back of his hand. Supplicants of light. Here one tinted easter pink along the edges of his white fur belly and wings. Eyes black, triangular, a robber’s mask. Furred and wizened face not unlike a monkey’s and wearing a windswept ermine shako. Suttree bent to see him better. What do you want?

Cormac McCarthy. Suttree. Vintage Edition, 1992. p. 89. Originally published in 1979.

We have been having a near-biblical plague of miller moths in Amarillo lately. I am reminded of this scene from Suttree as I read at night hearing the dusty smack of a billion flittering bodies against the window, about the lightbulb, watching the shower of motes spilling from all the collisions. The news keeps saying they’ll all be dead in two weeks.

Anyway, throughout the book Suttree is haunted by a twin. He was born a twin to a stillborn brother; an Antisuttree reaches towards him from another life in the reflection of a glass door; a lamp reflecting in water becomes a zygote dividing into two cells with disparate wills; an othersuttree precedes him in an bedlam journey through an obscure wood. Suttree muses that the stillborn twin was carted off to Purgatory while Suttree himself was condemned to a terrestrial hell – an impenetrable divide like a pane of glass between the two: one living in the eternal pre-dawn light of Limbo and the other confined to the darkness of black inferno.

The moth, clearly anthropomorphized, is another twin. Suttree’s question, as he leans close to look, he and the moth peering at each other through the glass, is rhetorical. What do you want? The moth wants the light. He’s a supplicant of light for crying out loud. Has anybody in all of history seen a moth that flees the light?

And this is the frustrating thing for me when I read McCarthy: he is known for turning his imagination towards the darkness and not flinching, but each time there’s a hint of light – pre-dawn gray – in Suttree he shrinks away. I know he’s out to imagine the tragic, but each time it feels like a moth becoming aware and turning to leave the light. If he’s the twin confined to hell, then surely he has chosen it. If he’s writing the tragic simply as a warning, which the book ends with (Fly them), then ought there be some light – otherwise all warnings are to flee the dark for otherdark.

I don’t want callow optimism. I want light.

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