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 "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller

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PostSubject: "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller   Sat Feb 18, 2012 10:18 pm

I think just about everyone has heard of this novel, whether or not they have read it. The "obscene, dirty book", published in France in 1934 but not in the US until 1961 and many other countries until later on in the 1960's. The book that challenged censorship laws everywhere it made an appearance. The book that supposedly broke the barriers for spicy language and sexuality in literature today (Hello? Has anybody read "The Miller's Tale" in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales"? I think that brought raunchiness to new levels, and that was written in the 1300's).

But of course we are talking about contemporary slang and profanities. The "F" word and the "C" word (the one that most women hate) are ubiquitous in Miller's book, which is a mostly autobiographical account of his time in Paris with other expatriates, fellow writers and artists with whom he shares a squalid, licentious existence during the 1920's. The book has Miller always on the edge of starvation, yet he always has enough money for whores, with whom he describes his encounters in vivid detail that actually becomes (intentionally) monotonous.

Because of his continuous use of the "C" word, one is inclined to dismiss Miller as a bitter, weary misogynist. Which he probably was, to an extent. The only women in this book, except for brief passages about his wife who has gone back to America, are invariably prostitutes. And every other male character, supposedly based on real Miller associates, is as pitiful and tactless as he is.

There is no plot to speak of. Miller goes from one flophouse to another. He bums money, food, and lodging from one associate after another. All the while going whoring with his male friends. I can see how this book caused such a stir so many decades ago. Yet today it is really no worse than so much else that is out.

The writing swings from brilliant passages to monotone character encounters to pretentious, stream-of-consciousness tangents that can go on for pages. One of the passages that really struck me was when he described his virulent contempt for his native New York:

"(It is) a whole city erected over a hollow pit of nothingness. Meaningless. Absolutely meaningless. And Forty-Second Street! The top of the world, they call it. Where's the bottom then? You can walk along with your hands out and they'll put cinders in your cap. Rich or poor, they walk along with head thrown back and they almost break their necks looking up at their beautiful white prisons. They walk along like blind geese and the searchlights spray their empty faces with flecks of ecstasy."

This bitter cynicism is pretty much the whole tone for the entire book.

So do I recommend it? I would say yes, if only to experience Miller's unique style of writing. Just chuck the "C" and "F" words aside for the monotonous invectives that I believe Miller intends them to be and see what drives this man to go to such depths of squalor just for the sake of his art.

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So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way.--Joni Mitchell
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PostSubject: Re: "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller   Sat Feb 18, 2012 10:37 pm

Great review, Paul, thanks. I've been looking forward to this review ever since you said you were reading Tropic of Cancer! it does sound a little interesting, but I think I'll give it a pass. If I wanted to hear about struggling artistic types sleeping with prostitutes, I'd listen to my uncle more. lol!

Although it does in part remind me of the final section of 2666 which told the story of a young soldiers maturity into becoming a writer and detailing all his sexual conquests (including those he paid for) along the way.
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