I think I first encountered "Under the Volcano" as a context-free question in Scholastic Bowl. Back in high school, my role on the team focused on literature, history, politics, and geography. Some of it was stuff I already knew, but a lot involved me memorizing lists of things that might come up in a tournament. I'm amazed at how much of that stuff has stuck with me. Some of it might still come in useful if I ever attend cocktail parties (the names of the six wives of Henry VIII), while others will be uselessly occupying precious brain cells for the remainder of my life (Dan Glickman was Secretary of Agriculture and Rodney Slater was Secretary of Transportation while I was playing Scholastic Bowl).
Anyways, a good chunk of memorization had to do with the authors of various important books. This ended up being at least slightly useful outside the game, as it made me look more knowledgeable than I really was. In Scholastic Bowl, you're primed to immediately hit the buzzer the instant you know the answer; to this day, when someone mentions the name of a book, I immediately say, "Oh, that's by [fill in the blank], right?" It makes me look like I know what they're talking about, even though I often know absolutely nothing beyond the names. Hooray for useless knowledge!
So it was with "Under the Volcano." That really sounds like an exciting book, doesn't it? Just based on the title? Maybe a "Land of the Lost"-style adventure, with modern people passing through a volcanic range to encounter pre-civilization dinosaurs. Or maybe it's more of a Morlock thing, with a civilization of people living beneath a volcano. Or maybe an apocalyptic science-fiction story, where evil men plot to trigger a volcanic explosion to destroy the earth.
Well, turns out that it's none of those things. It's about a drunk mid-level British diplomat.
It's a very well-written book about a drunk mid-level British diplomat, I should say. After I got over my initial disappointment, I started to appreciate the book a lot more. To manage expectations: it's much more on the order of, say, Joyce, in that it's a densely written, intricate and interesting book; its plot does not excite, but its characters and language do.
Three main characters dominate the story. The most important is The Consul, Geoffrey Firmin. He's a British representative who has traveled around the world, and recently been stationed in Mexico. The book is set in the 1930's, with the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and the Mexican Revolution. Britain has withdrawn its consuls, so Geoffrey is remaining without any real reason to be there. He's drunk, but not just because of that. Drunkenness permeates his entire life, his entire thinking. We gradually learn that his drinking goes back years and years, and was the direct cause of the most traumatic event of his life, his divorce from Yvonne; the divorce, in turn, further drove his drinking.
The Mexicans in the town call him "borracho," and with good reason. Some view him with pity, others with disdain, a few take advantage of him. He lives his entire life in... not exactly a fog, but in an altered state of reality, under the influence of alcohol. Malcolm Lowry uses a third-person omniscient narrator, who in each chapter is attached to the thoughts of a particular character. It's exhilarating and creepy to see the Consul's thoughts spinning out of control, both in speech and in his own head. He has a great education and is very knowledgeable, but now all the structure has fallen apart, and what comes out of his mouth is a kind of stew, with lots of jumbled-together references and allusions that don't add up to anything.
It's hard to decide how to relate to the Consul. He's pathetic, but in a way that feels slightly endearing. We get to know him better once Yvonne (re-)enters the picture. She still has feelings for him, and desperately hopes to rescue what remains of him from his self-destructive drinking. She isn't an angel either, but is an epitome of rationality compared with him. Rounding out the trio is Hugh Firmin, Geoffrey's much younger brother. Hugh has led an exciting life as a songwriter, sailor, cowboy, and mercenary; however, Hugh is plagued by feelings of inadequacy, and constantly longs for a sense of authenticity that he seems unable to achieve.
Possibly the most amazing aspect of Under the Volcano is the way that Lowry explores and expands the lives of his characters. We get to feel like we know the characters soon after they're introduced, but later chapters drastically revise our understanding of them. We learn about Yvonne's history as a childhood actress, of which Hugh isn't even aware; her experiences with fame at that early age help us understand why she acts the way she does. Conversely, Yvonne has no idea that Hugh is a talented guitarist, and he actively hopes that she doesn't find out, so determined is he to erase this part of his history.
Huh... it just occurred to me that this might be a major theme of the book: erasure. Geoffrey drinks to drive away his despair; drinking doesn't make him forget, but it does dull his pain. Hugh took to the sea to destroy his image as a child of privilege; he gave up his songwriting career; he abandoned England to fight in other wars. Yvonne may be the one creative member of the trio, with her dream of an island farm in Vancouver.
Under the Volcano was a fairly difficult book to read. Geoffrey's drinking can be amusing, but it's also really awful. The writing is so dense that it takes a lot of concentration to absorb; it doesn't fit in that well with my habit of reading on public transit, and I ended up reading most of the book at home. I think I would have gotten a lot more out of it if I'd read it back in school; I'm pretty confident that I missed a ton of allusions and themes in there. Still, the text is strong enough to be enjoyed on its own, and I'm glad I made the effort.