Kay's Reviews > Tropic of Cancer

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
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Jun 21, 12

Read from June 17 to 21, 2012

[Warning: Much like the book itself, this review contains language that shouldn't be used in polite company.]

What the book does well is everything that has earned it praise, including Karl Shapiro's label of Henry Miller as "the greatest living author." Now no longer living, Miller can certainly be respected as breaking barriers with the writing of this book. He was frank about many aspects of life that, up until that point, weren't often considered literary. In fact, the book was banned in America for decades. It took the Supreme Court and the First Amendment to allow it to be sold in America in 1961.

Miller seems to have pioneered the unlikable narrator and famously blurred autobiography and fiction. And, Christ, is the narrator a misogynist. Women are more often referred to as "cunts," "whores" or "prostitutes" than they are as actual human women with their own thoughts and desires. There aren't any real female characters in the book to speak of; women are either objects to fuck or controlling shrews who entrap men. The female character in the book that strays the furthest from a one-dimensional representation of a "cunt" or a "whore" is Tania, which makes sense when you realize she's loosely based on his lover Anaïs Nin, who also helped him edit his book.

It seems like more than wishful thinking to assume that the misogyny happens to be the fictional part, and folks who defend this book's sexism seem unwilling to admit that Miller was a product of his time but also didn't try to fight it. The Parisian Bohemian lifestyle of the 1930s so romanticized by Woody Allen in "Midnight in Paris" is perhaps better addressed by visiting Miller's text, an actual artifact of the time. It wasn't great to be a woman or a black person, "a Negress" as Miller's protagonist says in the book, in that time period. This book makes you realize that it sort of sucked to be a Bohemian in that time—even the narrator, a white American man, thinks often about his "empty belly."

The protagonist's struggle to make art is a physical one in addition to an artistic and emotional one. The book also includes some hilarious passages, like when the narrator and his friend, Fillmore, crash mass while hung over.

In short, there's much to love about this book but there's also much to hate. Still, even having finished it a few days ago, I continue to mull over it. As George Orwell wrote, "even if parts of it disgust you, it will stick in your memory."
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06/18/2012 page 48
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