Book #41: Under The Volcano
What a depressing book.
When this adventure is over, I might start a kickstarter campaign to raise money for my weekly therapy. ‘Cause, man, I’ve read some depressing books.
It’s not that depressing books are a bad thing. I’ve defended them before. It’s just that, when you read sad book after sad book, it begins to, well, make you long for a Disney movie about puppies or something.
When it comes to sad, Under The Volcano might take the cake, at least in terms of the first 41 books I’ve read on this list. And that’s saying a lot because the list to this point includes books like Never Let Me Go, Rabbit Run, and Revolutionary Road.
The story follows Geoffrey Firmin, a supremely alcoholic ex-British Consul in Mexico (consuls regulated trade between countries), his stepbrother, Hugh, and the Consul’s ex-wife, Yvonne, in a vague, sordid, depressing love triangle.
The novel covers one 24 hour span, the Day of the Dead, that essentially begins and ends with the Consul in a drunken stupor. Situated in a small Mexican town, Quauhnahuac, located underneath two volcanoes, the Consul longs for Yvonne, who left him and fled out of the country because of his drinking–and, apparently, because of the affair she had with Hugh.
When Yvonne returns to Mexico with Hugh, early in the day, the Consul realizes he has the golden opportunity to get back his one true love. The rest of the novel, a large majority of it, explores the tension between the Consul’s love of Yvonne and his love of the drink.
I would estimate that at least half of Under The Volcano is written from the point of view of a drunken narrator, the Consul. That might, at first, seem entertaining–and it proves to be at times. But Lowry translates that into long, rambling, comma-ridden sentences. Maybe it’s too effective of a technique.
I shared Lowry’s style recently. But the following is an even better example of his extreme wordiness. In this sentence, it seems as if Lowry’s goal is to use every punctuation mark in the English language. Look at this beast of a sentence.
On his return with the whiskey bottle he rightly deduced the Consul to have hidden in the cupboard, his eyes ranged the Consul’s books disposed quite neatly–in the tidy room where there was not otherwise the slightest sign its occupant did any work or contemplated any for the future, unless it was the somewhat crumpled bed on which the Consul had evidently been lying–on high shelves around the walls: Dogme et Ritual de la Haute Magie, Serpant and Siva Worship in Central America, there were two long shelves of this, together with the rusty leather bindings and frayed edges of the numerous cabbalistic and alchemical books, though some of them looked fairly new, like the Goetia of the Lemagaton of Solomon the King, probably they were treasures, but the rest were a heterogenous collection: Gogol, the Mahabharata, Blake, Tolstoy, Pontoppidan, the Upanishads, a Mermaid Marston, Bishop Berkeley, Duns Scotus, Spinoza, Vice Versa, Shakespeare, a complete Taskerson, All Quiet on the Western Front, the Clicking of Cuthbert, the Rig Veda–God knows, Peter Rabbit; “Everything is to be found in Peter Rabbit,” the Consul liked to say–Hugh returned, smiling, and with a flourish like a Spanish waiter poured him a stiff drink into a toothmug.
How ’bout that?
If you’ve read anything about Lowry’s life, you’ll realize that Under The Volcano is semi-autobiographical. Lowry ultimately died (there’s a question of whether he committed suicide or was murdered by his wife) because of a lethal overdose of alcohol and pills.
The New Yorker says Lowry’s alcoholism was so bad that he was dependent on his wife to do simple things, like tie his shoes. Simple motor skills, like holding a pen, were extremely difficult for him.
The parallels between the Consul in Under The Volcano and Lowry are striking. So much of the Consul’s inner dialogue revolves around how much he’s had to drink, what he’s drinking, who knows he’s drinking, whether or not he looks drunk. And, of course, the effects of the drink itself. Here’s another longish example sentence:
Closing his eyes again, standing there, glass in hand, he thought for a minute with a freezing detached almost amused calm of the dreadful night inevitably waiting him whether he drank much more or not, his room shaking with daemonic orchestras, the snatches of fearful tumultuous sleep, interrupted by voices which were really dogs barking, or by his own name being continually repeated by imaginary parties arriving, the vicious shouting, the strumming, the slamming, the pounding, the battling with insolent archfiends, the avalanche breaking down the door, the proddings from under the bed, and always, outside, the cries, the wailing, the terrible music, the dark spinets: he returned to the bar.
The Consul shifts between a drunken inner dialogue and actual spoken dialogue, which makes it difficult, sometimes, to tell what he is thinking and what he is actually saying.
This is a dense book. Lowry himself admitted to being wordy, and knowing that Under The Volcano went through a heavy editing process, I can’t imagine what it looked like before those edits.
Before he died, Lowry had been called “the successor to James Joyce,” and it’s easy to see the similarities. Under The Volcano has a Joyceish quality to it.
The book isn’t as difficult as Ulysses. But Lowry’s style of writing will make you work a little. The book is also rich with symbolism: the number 7, a raven, the volcanoes, a pariah dog, and dozens of other symbols all appear repeatedly throughout the book.
But back to my opening: This is a sad, sad book. It’s not a novel that makes you feel dirty—like Dog Soldiers or Falconer—but it’s a novel that kind of makes you want to settle down into a lonely, dark corner, eat Cheetos, and write gothic poetry.
It’s one of those novels that starts sad and only gets sadder, eventually culminating with a tragic, hopeless, morbid ending. Oh fun!
Even for me, the guy who’s read dozens of dark, depressing novels in the last two years, this one is really difficult. But the beauty of it is that Lowry illustrates the sadness so subtly, page after page after page. He doesn’t hit you over the head with it.
And even though you see a tragedy coming, you’ll find yourself spurred on to read by a small seed of hope that maybe, just maybe, the Consul will turn his life around.
So, ultimately, I can recognize Under The Volcano as a brilliant work of literature, but I also recognize that I have no desire to read it again. Or at least for a long time. Ever read a novel like that?
The Opening Line: “Two mountain chains traverse the republic roughly from north to south, forming between them a number of valleys and plateaus.”
The Meaning: This is a deep, dark book about loneliness and despair. It’s a not a novel about action, but one about inaction—a protagonist who is debilitated because of his addiction and can’t seem to make the right choice, the choice that even he wants to make.
Highlights: The novel is unbelievably detailed, with symbolism and allusion on every page. It’s a literature teacher’s dream. Since the plot covers a short 24 hour period, Lowry’s character development is excellent.
Lowlights: Lowry’s style of writing is simply not my cup of tea. His style varies, depending on who the narrator is speaking of at the time, but he falls back on a lot of long, wordy, sentences. ADD people, like me, might struggle staying focused.
Memorable Line: ““Have you gone mad?” M. Laruelle exclaimed at last. ”Am I to understand that your wife has come back to you, something I have seen you praying and howling for under the table–really under the table…And that you treat her indifferently as this, and still continue only to care where the next drink’s coming from?””
Final Thoughts: As I mentioned in the review, I’ll probably put this one up for a while and likely won’t reread it. Under The Volcano is an extremely sad, tragic novel–have I mentioned that?–that is brilliantly executed by Malcolm Lowry. I think it absolutely deserves to be on this list. That said, it makes me want to crawl into the fetal position while hugging a puppy.