Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer is Sick But Not That Sick

Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was banned in the US and the UK in the ‘60s because it was “obscene”. I think HM got lucky because without the infamy, it probably wouldn’t have attracted plenty of attention; it would just be a novel with a central character that happens to be fascinated with cunts. It’s interesting that in the ‘60s, books have the power to scandalize people. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine people being outraged by a book’s luridness. What’s not difficult to imagine though is some people disliking its self-indulgence and lack of a story. Henry Miller isn’t the loveliest of humans but it’s silly to dislike the book because he’s occasionally vile and a cynic.

The novel’s narrator Henry Miller would like you to think that he thinks about nothing but food, sex, and writing. But he thinks about a lot of things, too. He’s a penniless writer in Paris, which is exactly what you should be if you want to write a semi-autobiographical novel about being down and out. There are long, beautiful paragraphs that are at once hypnotic and exasperating. Reading about writers is fatiguing me a bit, but Henry Miller’s prose put me into a trance. Also, I hate starting books and not finishing them. I’d also give any book about the expat life a chance. I liked JM Coetzee’s ‘Youth’ because it had the nerve to touch upon visa problems. But HM’s too cool for that. He’d rather write about the ‘Paris that grows inside you like cancer, and grows and grows until you are eaten away by it.’

To him, being a vagabond who’s consumed by thoughts of how to get fed day by day is more compelling than worrying about visas and immigration officers. The men are  degenerates, foreigners like him who find sanctuary in whorehouses despite being penniless, and the women exist solely for the men’s pleasure. There is not a single interesting person because the narrator is too fascinated with his own thoughts to create one. Not that he hasn’t any right to be! It’s his book, and readers are entitled to certain authors’ masturbatory leanings. Ultimately, Henry Miller is just like one of the guys he hung around with in Paris. Sometimes they do and say interesting things, sometimes they’re just happy to ramble and exist. And you, the reader, is just happy to get to the next page and experience more of his being, that is, precious, poor and a man who has needs.

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