Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What I'm Reading: Under the Volcano

I've been working on this one for a while. In fact, I've been putting off posting about it because I wanted to get deeper into the story before coming to any conclusions. At three-quarters of the way through, I'm still not sure if I'm up to the challenge of writing about this book, but I'll give it a shot.

Image courtesy HarperCollins

Under the Volcano is a throwback to the dense and quote-unquote literary selections on the TIME Top 100 list. The last one I read before this was White Noise, which is...a thing. But it's light and easy to read. Before that was A House for Mr Biswas, which was thoroughly unimpressive. I'm glad to be back into "literary" territory. Or maybe literary isn't the right word.

In stark contrast to A House for Mr Biswas, Under the Volcano is an interior novel, an entire story filtered through people's inner perceptions and reactions. There isn't that cynical distance that Naipaul keeps as he traces the arc of Mr. Biswas's sad, short life; this is a very personal novel. And unlike both White Noise and A House for Mr Biswas, there is a higher level of syntactical complexity. It doesn't quite reach the density of something like Beloved, but it's more like Beloved than anything else I've recently read. You can't zip through Under the Volcano. You wouldn't want to, either—there are some exquisite descriptions and inner narrations in here that should be savored.

This is the kind of reading I love. I love to be challenged like that, to have lots of complexity that requires reading and re-reading and long pauses to digest and think.

When I read a book, I'm always on the lookout for a quote or two that I can pull, for my own reference (I like to collect quotes) as well as for use in my reviews. Everything in A House for Mr Biswas was too pedestrian and dull to be worth sharing out of context; there were a few bits of dialogue here and there in White Noise that I enjoyed but which didn't seem to be worth noting. With Under the Volcano, my problem is that I don't know where I could possibly end the selection. I would just be quoting the whole thing. Even the selections I could more or less excise are just so long, they don't really belong in a fly-by-night blog review by a nobody.

But on to the story. What is it about? In a nutshell, the book is about Geoffrey, an alcoholic British expatriate in Mexico in the late 1930s and the people around him: his estranged ex-wife, a childhood friend (or is that ex-friend?) from France, his half brother Hugh. So far, what's happened is that Yvonne (the ex-wife) has returned to Geoffrey to try to work things out; Hugh is visiting on leave between sailing jobs; on their way to another town for Day of the Dead festivities they've run into Jacques, the childhood friend, and they've all decided to go to the carnival together.

Simple on the surface, but there are deep waters in this book. Each chapter shifts perspectives from one character to another—Geoffrey, Hugh, and Jacques, primarily—so that the reader gets a healthy dose of backstory and interior monologue.

No one is perfect, but no one is entirely unsympathetic either. Everyone is human: flawed, certainly, but recognizable as a more or less likable or at least understandable human at the end of it. The level of detail and clarity of the portrait sketched depends on the character. Geoffrey's perspective is the most interesting, in terms of language, but he is also about as coherent as you would expect from someone off their mind on mescal and tequila. The most clearly articulated portrait is that of Hugh, an idealistic artistic type still coming to terms with reality, and the sad truth that it's most likely that he won't amount to anything—appropriate that the person with the strongest sense of self and identity and adhesion to labels is the one whose biography is the most straightforward. Jacques is somewhere in between the two: without the same centered identity as Hugh but not as lost and hopeless as Geoffrey.

This is the kind of book that made me tackle the TIME Top 100 list in the first place. I'm definitely going to have to find more Malcolm Lowry after I finish this book tour.

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