Malcolm Lowry's reputation as a novelist rests primarily on the masterpiece Under the Volcano. Lowry is also well known for what he did not write; that is, for his anguished inability to complete his works. Under the Volcano is one of only two novels published in Lowry's lifetime; the bulk of his writings were still in various stages of composition when he died in 1957. In Forests of Symbols, Patrick A. McCarthy addresses the central enigma of the writer's life: his dependence on writing for his sense of identity and his fear that the process of composition would leave him with no identity apart from his work.
In a rare mix of diligent scholarship and insightful criticism, [McCarthy] offers us, very likely for the first time, a sense of the novelist's life work, of its continuity and its considerable worth.
—Journal of Modern Literature
McCarthy treats his subject with dignity, elegance, and depth. . . . In sum, Forests of Symbols
is to be praised for its lucidity and insightfulness. It will prove to be necessary reading for Lowry scholars, yet will also be of interest to students approaching Lowry's dark yet illuminating fictions for the first time.
—Modern Fiction Studies
Showing excellent judgment, McCarthy reads as a metafictionist. . . . Inspired as well as painstaking, McCarthy explains the influence of Marlowe, Shelley, and Jung on his man; he describes the 'highly textual existence' of the people in Under the Volcano
; finally he concludes his distinguished study with fifty pages of meaty back matter.
McCarthy shows extensive knowledge of secondary sources on Lowry and any critic could learn something from his account of patterns of correspondence at work in Lowrys' texts. . . . Forests of Symbols
provides a substantial investigation of the question it raises concerning the relationship between Lowry's life and his works.
—Yearbook of English Studies