11. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Year Published: 1947
Pages: 377
First Sentence: Two mountain chains traverse the republic roughly from north to south, forming between them a number of valleys and plateaus.
Rating: 1/3 (don't bother)

Imagine, if you will, being unceremoniously dropped in a small Mexican town, and having to spend the day with an alcoholic, his ex-wife, and his half-brother. That's what it's like reading Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. If that sounds like an appealing experience to you, you may enjoy this book. To me it sounds like torture, and getting to the end of Under the Volcano was like pulling teeth.

To elaborate, the setting is a town called Quauhnahuac, "under the shadow of two volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl. The day is the Day of the Dead, 1938. The alcoholic is Geoffrey Firmin, an Englishman formerly employed as consult in the town, now drinking himself to death. His ex-wife is Yvonne, who left him, divorced him, and has now come back. His half-brother is Hugh, who is a reporter or a sailor or maybe both or neither.

The one really good thing about this novel is the portrayal of alcohol consumption from the perspective of an alcoholic, which is harrowing. The only time I ever actually cared about Geoffrey Firmin was when he thinks about how desperate he is for a drink, how he doesn't need a drink, how sober he must seem, how desperately he needs a drink.

Firmin is an undeniably tragic figure. At one point he nearly gets run over after passing out in the street. At another, Hugh has to help him shave because his hands shake too much. I wasn't able to figure out how long he'd been this way or if the book gives any reason why, though I have to admit I didn't try very hard, and this is a book that wants you to try very, very hard.

You may recall that I seldom read Introductions. When it came to this book, though, I was doing everything I could not to go back to it, so I skimmed the first page, written in the edition I read by a man named Michael Schmidt, who himself admits that it took him three tries before he was actually able to finish reading the novel for the first time. Malcolm Lowry himself apparently worked at it for nine years, revising and reworking throughout that time.

The result is this bewildering assemblage of twelve chapters. For some reason the first chapter occurs one year in the future and I honestly barely understood it. The remaining chapters are each one hour of the day, told from the perspectives of the Consul, Yvonne, and Hugh.

The prose was sometimes good but was overall just extremely alienating. Lowry worked hard for it and wants the reader to do the same. The trouble is that for me, there was no reason given to work for it. The characters were all strangers to me and I didn't want to spend time with them. The difficult prose and unengaging characters also unfortunately made me pretty indifferent toward the themes and messages of the novel. As addictions to alcohol and other harmful and dangerous drugs impact my community and others in increasingly negative ways, thoughtful stories about addiction are ever more necessary. This story, with its portrayal of an addict and the people who care about him but can't do anything to help, could be instructive. Too bad I just hated every minute.

If not for this project, I would've put the book down after that first chapter and never picked it back up again. I can't believe I'm even writing these words right now, but I think this is the book I've enjoyed least since Finnegans Wake. The main problem may just be that I'm sick of drunk white expatriates in literature. This isn't a lifestyle I relate to, and I'm seldom interested in it either. The Sun Also Rises is what this book wishes it was, or maybe just what I wish this book was, because I'd love to have read that book a second time rather than read Under the Volcano this once.

I'll take solace in the fact that I've never seen this book mentioned outside of The List. And I would've had even more negative things to say if it were one of the Top 10.
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Passing her one would not have suspected agony. One would not have noticed the lack of faith, nor questioned that she knew where she was going, nor wondered if she were walking in her sleep. How happy and pretty she looks, one would say. Probably she is going to meet her lover in the Bella Vista!—Women of medium height, slenderly built, mostly divorced, passionate but envious of the male—angel to him as he is bright or dark, yet unconscious destructive succubus of his ambitions—American women, with that rather graceful swift way of walking, with the clean scrubbed tanned faces of children, the skin finely textured with a satin sheen, their hair clean and shining as though just washed, and looking like that, but carelessly done, the slim brown hands that do not rock the cradle, the slender feet—how many centuries of oppression has produced them?
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