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Patrick A. McCarthy’s Forests of Symbols is both the first full-length critical study of Malcolm Lowry’s entire career to emerge in many years and one of the most substantial ever published. Combining original archival research, useful synthetic criticism, and insightful close readings, McCarthy’s study treats each of Lowry’s major fictions in relation to the author’s entire corpus, giving this scholar’s observations genuine resonance and depth. “Lowry,” McCarthy writes, “understood the cosmos in terms of his inner self,” yet
he also understood himself in relation to the patterns and meanings that confronted him when he looked out at the world. . . . What he saw in that world-in particular, his complex [End Page 361] entanglement with the texts and symbols that he encountered, and in part created, as he struggled to achieve an authentic vision of his own identity-is the subject of this book.
McCarthy treats his subject with clarity, elegance, and depth. He devotes one chapter to the search for an authentic identity in the pre-Under the Volcano works-Ultramarine (1933; the only of Lowry’s novels other than Under the Volcano that he lived to see published), In Ballast to the White Sea and Lunar Caustic; three chapters to Under the Volcano (1947), itself, the author’s masterpiece; and two chapters to the post-Volcano (and in some cases uncompleted) works, Dark as the Grave, La Mordida (of which McCarthy himself is editing a critical edition), October Ferry to Gabriola, and Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. McCarthy also devotes a chapter to Lowry’s unrealized “grand scheme” for his entire corpus, The Voyage that Never Ends.
McCarthy is at his most provocative when he examines the complex act and role of interpretation-for Lowry, his protagonists, and his readers. For example, McCarthy notes that on virtually every page of Under the Volcano symbols proliferate at lightning speed, both “for the Consul and for the reader,” and that the reader thus becomes, “in a very real sense, the Consul’s other self, an alternative interpreter of the symbolic text that is the Consul’s world of experience.” Despite the great and obvious differences among Lowry’s, the Consul’s and the reader’s interpretive situations, for all of them “nothing is devoid of personal and cosmic significance” and signs of great importance are to be found at every turn. While this approach to reading the world results in genuine artistic vision, it also threatens to devolve into solipsism and paranoia. As McCarthy puts it of Under the Volcano, “[t]he book’s elaborate symbolism, including its proliferation of analogies to the Consul’s situation, requires that the reader interpret the world much as the Consul does, but at the same time we need to recognize that Geoffrey Firmin’s obsessive private readings of events are a major cause of his destruction.” Similarly, the Lowry of the post-Volcano years, like the Consul himself, another frustrated artist, appears to have found it difficult to maintain his own identity apart from the increasingly convoluted fictions that he attempted to create. This complex and tortured involvement with his fictions, McCarthy continues, in turn [End Page 362] “undermined Lowry’s sense of his individual identity and contributed to his inability to complete and revise his later works.”
McCarthy’s wide-ranging, three-chapter discussion of the Volcano is of particular interest. In the first of these chapters, McCarthy explores the novel’s wealth of coincidences and correspondences, which are “less suggestive of random occurrence than of the operations of a partly self-imposed fate.” In the second, McCarthy examines the numerous acts of reading in the novel and observes that “the characters of Under the Volcano lead a highly textual existence, for they are constantly portrayed as surrounded or confronted by written words. In the third, McCarthy explores the extent to which Geoffrey Firmin is an artiste manqué, a failed (or at least inactive) writer who talks about...