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


Pleasures of Middleness: Middlesex

er-middlesexBefore I knew anything about Eugenides’ (sort of) epic novel Middlesex I assumed without thinking much about it that Middlesex was some sort of place, like Middlemarch. A place-derived title often doesn’t promise a very interesting read but I like to check out Pulitzer winners if they don’t sound too depressing. When I started reading and figured out that Middlesex was much more literal than just a name of a place (which it also is), suddenly I expected more from the story. And generally I wasn’t disappointed.

Middlesex is a very scholar-friendly book. Not only is it rife with metaphors and allusions – it self-analyzes. It actually robs you of some of the satisfaction of feeling smart. You don’t have time to self-congratulate for noticing the, say, Homeric allusions when the narrator explains them. Hardly do you realize the importance of the narrator’s location in Berlin when (s)he informs you that all the split places attract him because of a sense of affinity.  At one point Stephanides-the narrator says he likes to draw attention to the mechanics of writing fiction and that’s exactly what happens all the time. Not all of the metaphors are explained directly but when Callie is seducing her friend in her sleep in the moonlight what movie is the friend’s brother making? A vampire movie, of course. The book constantly plays with the reader in these small ways. Personally, once I got used to how blatant it was I actually liked it a lot. Even though I’ve grown bored with most postmodernist techniques like these, I’ll still bite if the story is interesting and Callie’s story actually is.

The novel goes beyond Callie’s life to start from her grandparents’: their flight from Greece to the USA, their incestuous relationship and their immigrant difficulties. I find this part much weaker than Callie’s own story. I feel that the humorous tone, so successful in the later part, clashes with the descriptions of war violence and of the brother-sister marriage. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the first part unnecessary but I definitely did not enjoy it as much. When we get to Callie’s own life though, the story finds the right voice. Like a good postmodernist novel that it is, it welds together many different genres: social commentary during the race riots, teen romance with the Obscure Object, prep school drama, action adventure and, most of all, the mystery of how and when Callie discovered the truth about her body (to name just a few). Callie’s voice, observant, ironic, unapologetic, combines all these together, at its best reminding me of Lolita. While this is obviously a humongous praise for any novel, I believe it justified. The novels share a similar tone, flagrant erudition, the themes of European immigrants, unconventional sexuality (I’m putting it mildly), and, most of all, the double character: a teen girl and an older, “satyric” man. That they are the same character fits in great with all the other twists Middlesex adds to well-known motifs.

Hermaphroditism seems like a subject inviting certain garishness and sensationalism, which Eugenides avoids in quite an impressive way. Even when Cal almost literally works as a circus freak, he makes it sound mythical rather than cheap. This is certainly the biggest win of the novel. What doesn’t work quite as convincingly, I think, is the metaphor of middleness, which becomes forced: how being in between sexes is like, well, everything else. Immigrants are between their native land and the new home; teenagers are between children and adults; everyone is in the generation between their parents’ and children’s. See what I mean? This message is so generic that virtually useless. Despite this problem, though, Middlesex is a good read, the kind that interests you, tells you something new and makes sure you feel smart and perceptive all the way.