DIY MFA Reading List: “Under the Volcano” by Malcolm Lowry

It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish the fictional world presented in any given story from the author’s own life. In a sense, every work of fiction is autobiographical: a writer responds to the chaos inherent in existence, re-orders that chaos with the creative impulse and the written word, and transports the reader into a fantastical place that can offer a more satisfying and well-ordered interpretation of the universe.

Or not.

Geoffrey Firmin, the crazed, alcoholic Consul stumbling through the pages of Malcolm Lowry’s infernal masterpiece Under the Volano, is merely a minor character in the novel itself. The main character is Lowry’s fabled dipsomania: a cloying, everpresent consciousness twisting every sentence against itself.

I can only wonder how I might have reacted to “Under the Volcano” had I read it in ignorance of Lowry’s own life. But Lowry’s infamous thirst is well-documented, in this New Yorker article, in this autobiography, and in countless scholarly reviews of his novel. After three decades or more of severe alcoholism, Lowry choked to death on his own vomit, stoned on booze and downers, at the age of forty-seven.

Initially, at least, the experience of reading “Under the Volcano” is akin to reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. Both works frequently skip from one point of view to another, dazzling the reader with a mixture of styles and the sometimes heavy-handed use of symbolism to convey deeper meaning.

But where “Ulysses” reads like the calculated life’s work of some autistic, literary savant – transporting us completely into an allegorical joyride through the streets of Dublin – the experience of reading “Under the Volcano” is like trying to do your homework after pounding several pints of stout beer. At four in the morning. After a pub crawl, where you ended up having to take the bus home. And some stranger ended up vomiting all over your shirt.

Trudging through the streets of the Mexican city of Quauhnahuac on the Day of the Dead in 1938, the Consul happens upon the following quote, which then threads its way through the story like a musical refrain: “No se puede vivir sin amar” (One cannot live without love). This is less a mission statement than a death sentence for our paralyzed anti-hero, because the Consul’s alcoholism has drained him of the ability to feel anything at all. He simply doesn’t have the willpower (or the working synapses) required to summon the emotion. Not for his estranged wife (trying to reconcile with her, he can think only how to sneak another drink without her noticing); not for his acquaintances (who he views with jealousy, envy, mistrust or at best an enabling factor in his next bender); not Mexico (recently retired from his job as British consul to Quauhnahuac after a political flap involving the nationalization of Mexico’s oil reserves, it is difficult to imagine the Consul performing any kind of diplomatic responsibility in his constant state of drunkenness); and certainly not for himself.

The Consul’s Hell is his own consciousness. Unable to escape from it, he flounders along, numbing himself from his inner demons with one drink after another: anis and tequila and beer and mescal and gin and bourbon and on and on. He does not “love” alcohol, but is instead consumed by it, helpless against it. And we know from the first chapter (which foreshadows the Consul’s death in the last) that we’ll be expected to follow him along as he literally drinks himself to death.

I didn’t enjoy this novel. I thought it was pushy and morose, with imagery that impressed me at times with its flowery fireworks … but which never seemed to hit any sort of emotional paydirt. That being said, there’s a kind of genius in these sentences. Luring us along with something that seems like it could deliver grace, while instead delivering us steadily into the Consul’s own private Hell, Lowry manipulates the reader into a more perfect understanding of what it must have been like to suffer through such a debilitating disease.

Finishing the book, I felt used. As if by reading it I had somehow enabled Lowry’s life work – his alcoholism – to take advantage of another unsuspecting victim.

There’s a diabolic intelligence at work here.

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.