Tuesday, November 29, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Determined to complete the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge this year, I marched on through my banned book classic: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.

I don’t know what possessed me to pick this, and now I’m not exactly sure what to make of it, since it’s quite an appalling and unpleasant book to read. And yet, once I was a quarter of the way into the narrative, I was strangely hooked. The subject matter, superficially, is repetitive and self-absorbed. The style, annoyingly rambling, is not my cup of tea. But this is extreme writing and it packs a wallop.

Miller, the narrator, gives a fictionalized memoir-like account of his Paris revel, written while he was wandering the city, living on the streets, off his friends, and off the minimal proceeds of intermittent low-level jobs. He’s always hungry, sometimes on the verge of starvation. He’s usually drunk. He never actually seems to be writing, although he talks about writing with his artist and writer friends. And he spends most of his time pursuing women, mostly prostitutes, for sexual encounters. From time to time he pines for the wife he left back in the United States, but he’s also infatuated with a woman who is more or less linked with another friend of his. His friendships are all superficial and based on mutual dependency. His deepest emotion seems to be his love for Paris, primarily its seedy underside.

The novel is a series of semi-chronological anecdotes. They are not, in themselves, very interesting. But the descriptions underlying it all are extraordinary. He breathes life into characters as superficial as he is. His emotional responses to the ordinariness of walking about, or his job as a proof-reader, or his relief in sponging a meal off an acquaintance, make his actions seems somehow larger. Miller is wallowing in failure and yet, whenever he is about to despair, he finds something to focus his attention upon that lights him up again.

The book was banned for its explicit sexual content. For its time, it was absurdly racy. Now it doesn’t come across so much as boldly innovative as simply crude. Women in the novel are props to be exploited and demeaned. The men, narrator included, are disgusting, with no redeeming qualities except, perhaps, for their willingness to share with each other the little they have. This book doesn’t have a lot to recommend it except for the remarkable prose and occasional flashes of insight, but that is, surprisingly, enough to recommend it. I don’t think I’ll read anything else of Miller’s, but I’m glad to have gotten through this one.