Review of Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

First read: 8/98
Reviewed on: 8/19/98
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

This was the first book on the list that I read specifically for the sake of reading a book on the list. I chose it because the movie "Henry and June" was wonderful, and interested me in Henry Miller. Also, it was clear that there would be some serious sex in it, and just because I'm a 34 year old Ph.D. doesn't mean that I'm above choosing a book partially because it has sex in it.

I started reading the book in half hour installments while riding an exercise bicycle at the YWCA. At first I thought, "This is going to be a long ordeal." There was absolutely no plot, and the writing, while dramatic and evocative, didn't yield itself easily to meaning. This looked like one of those books that makes sense locally, but certainly not globally. And I wasn't in the mood for three hundred pages of random rambling, even if it was lively and firey rambling. However, after I gave up my expectations of plot, I got into the book and enjoyed it. Henry Miller hangs around Paris, starves, mooches off people, and has lots of sex with prostitutes and other women he can take advantage of. His friends are all either marks or fellow leeches. And that's pretty much it. The thing to get used to, to make it make sense, is that the book proceeds forwards in time, but the jumps between paragraphs are unpredictable. There are no "Three years later"s to guide you along… you end a paragraph about one living situation, and the next one takes place two months later. Miller doesn't just move the "story" along two months, he moves what he's thinking about, too. Understand this secret, and the novel becomes much more readable.

I finished reading the book on a trip to New York, staying with my brother, his lady, and his two daughters, and then visiting with my ex fiance, an ex lover, and then the ex fiance again along with a friend of ours from college. I visited old haunts, and basically wound up in a Milleresque blur of weird emotions and sexual tension, unrelieved due to a committed relationship hundreds of miles away. Reading his words gave an even more surreal edge to my vacation, helping me to resist the urge to bury my feelings under a thick layer of intellectual detachment. I let jealousy, happiness, lust and resentment take their turns with me rapid fire, not trying to stop or encourage them, yet not acting on them either. To be true to Henry Miller I should have ditched my female pals to catch one of the last remaining strip-shows at Times Square and then had sex with a prostitute. But I'm not Henry Miller, I am Doug Shaw. I asked Jen if she would take me to Teddy Roosevelt's birth place, and we went on a guided tour.

I'm glad I read this book. I will never think about vaginas the same way again. But I can't help but be a little depressed. After reading Miller's prose, how can I call myself a writer? After reading of Miller's adventures, how can I call myself a Man?

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