Kate Lawrence's Reviews > Tropic of Cancer

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
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Jan 30, 2010

it was ok
bookshelves: fiction

I like to read a banned book every once in awhile, just to see what the fuss was about. Miller, one of the most frequently banned authors of the 20th century, brought about a redefinition of our national obscenity laws, as well as influencing later writers such as Jack Kerouac.
Tackling The Tropic of Cancer requires the reader to wade through confusion and despair, callous and even cruel treatment of one character by another, accounts of repulsive living conditions, and wild rants about the failure of modern civilization. Anyone who expects to find seductive, lusciously satisfying sex will be disappointed here; in Miller's world sex is paid for, hurried, loveless, sometimes accompanied by disease: that is, problematic at best. The author and his male friends discuss and look for prostitutes, find them, talk and drink with them, then go "offstage" for sex; actual encounters are rarely described.
It is easy to see why frank talk about prostitutes, the frequent use of words never heard in polite society, as well as graphic comments on excrement, vomit, and other bodily secretions, was shocking in the mid-20th century. From today's vantage point, however, the most offensive aspects are Miller's objectification of women--he refers to every woman as a "cunt"--his racism, and his amorality, including theft and betrayal, toward others. On the positive side, he rewards readers with vivid poetic language on every page: "the trees screeched with frost," "creamy, mahogany music seeping through the place," to give two examples.
Ultimately I developed a guarded sympathy for Miller's character because, despite his selfishness, coarseness, and irresponsibility, he was a gifted individual trying to live an authentic life.
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