Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Tropic of Cancer

Every now and then I will give my reading habits a self-educational slant and read a classic I managed to miss in school. I rarely review them because, really, what can I add to the discussion of Madame Bovary, but this time I have a few things to say.

er-tropicofcancerTropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
An American classic, for a while considered too pornographic to be allowed in the USA, Miller describes the adventures of a Henry Miller in Paris in late 1920s. He lives as a bum, with no money and no prospects, sort of working on a book and expertly leeching off people he meets, sleeping with every prostitute he can find.

How I found it:
The first time I heard of Henry Miller was in high school, from my high school teacher who said he was her favorite writer. I mixed him up with Henry James and said I’d read him and found him boring, which really surprised her. Then I did start Miller but did indeed find him boring and only returned to him now as a sort of project to fill some of the gaps in my literary education.

Summary judgment:
I had this category for required reading that I finished because I was a good student but had to make myself finish: a feat of endurance. This wasn’t quite so hard to get through but really didn’t do much for me.

Best things about it:
Miller has a good sense of place. The Paris of his book is not the Paris I know and love (which is a very touristy, very postcardy one) but it lives and his description of the other places he visits are even more lively.

Worst things about it:
In general, I didn’t find particularly good reasons to immerse myself in this unpleasant, (literally) lousy world that Miller creates – other than a (misplaced?) intellectual ambition.
But if I were to choose one thing that was the worst, I would say the philosophizing, which would always turn into indecipherable, “poetic” drivel with nihilistic undertones. Oh, and sometimes when you felt it couldn’t get any muddier he would start describing a dream, which is generally the most useless writerly activity in the world.

Other pluses:
Sometimes when Miller focuses more on the people his character meets than on his insufferable inner monolog, the book flows better and reads faster. Some characters he describes remain fairly memorable, even though that’s usually because of how callously he writes about them.

Other minuses:
✤ It’s been discussed many times and there’s no disputing the fact: Miller’s depiction of women is offensive and heartless (and it doesn’t help much that his depiction of men has little heart as well). It was bad to begin with but it has grown old even worse.
✤ When you’re no longer 13 and sex scenes are not something exciting because you read them on the sly in your parents’ books, you appreciate how boring most sex descriptions are. So when their presence is the main thing that made the book famous, the book doesn’t stand the test of time too well.

How it enriched my life:
I can tick off one more book from the list of unread classics and now I can dislike Miller in an informed way.

Fun fact:
The book was banned as pornography in the USA and Great Britain and only became legally available in the 1960s. You can see why, of course, but the decades that passed since have really made us less sensitive to this kind of thing.

Cover notes:
A classic shot of a naked lady is a safe choice that’s hard to dispute and I could get behind the framed typography, especially that it makes for a recognizable series. But the last frame, with the Cancer, has no outline and rounded corners and this I just can’t approve of because it shows the designer’s helplessness.

I’m quite happy never to take up another Miller again.

Recommended for:
This book should only be read by two kinds of people: American lit professors who need to know the classics and pretentious teenagers who still think descriptions of sex make a book some kind of revolutionary.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Next time: Wonder Woman