The other day, I was reading this on the bicycle machiney thing in the tiny gym in the basement of my office building. Two students were in there, and they kept looking at the book weird, and I couldn’t really figure out why. Then, when I went into the locker room, I overheard their conversation for just a second: “Did you see that guy? He was reading porn or something.” I had forgot about the tit on the cover.
Tropic of Cancer is Henry Miller’s (1891-1980) largely autobiographical memoir novel (more commonly referred to as an au-bo-mem-nov) about his time spent in Paris in the 30s. Miller was more or less fleeing his second wife who had, among other things, taken a lesbian lover and gone crazy. He was broke, living off of irregularly sent checks from home and begged meals from friends and acquaintances. Cancer is an account of those begged meals, wasted time, short-lived jobs, whoring and drinking, fictionalized. To what degree it is fictionalized, I can’t determine. Miller cleverly did not say, and kept up the mystery about himself and his book. It could be as simple as just a change of the names of the innocent, but I also suspect that Henry Miller wasn’t quite the lady-killer that the Henry Miller in the novel is made out to be.
Cancer is of note for two reasons – firstly, it used the word “pussy.” The court cases surrounding the book went a long way toward finally blowing apart censorship laws in the United States and, more or less, marked the end of federal-level “obscenity” trials. As an interesting aside, censorship laws were enforced by the Post Office, of all things, that bastion of bureaucratic paralysis and social ineptitude. Read into that whatever you like.
Secondly, and speaking more literarily, it was written in a then-new style that has been an influence on everything since. The writing style is open, casual, almost stream-of-conscious. Everything from Selby to Burrows to Bukowski to Palahniuk started with Miller. He threw out the notion of writing like a writer, and wrote like he thought – like everybody thought – and spoke. I suppose that’s what ultimately saved the book from the censors. People think and talk about sex, and so did Miller. Cancer isn’t exactly laden with it either – you couldn’t even call it a book about sex. The subject comes up as much as it would with a single man of natural impulses taking private revenge on his estranged wife while living in Paris before HIV existed. Which is a lot, sure – a whole lot – but that’s not all there is. The narrator’s quest for food actually gets more ‘screen time’ than sex, it’s just that Miller never refers to food as “that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft bulging thighs.”
Now, though, three generations later, books like this – about the seedy, desperate underworld of City X – seem almost old hat. I can’t name a city that hasn’t had one written about it, except maybe Des Moines. Paris, New York, Chicago (woot!), Tokyo, jesus…even Zurich has gotten the sex and booze and miserable-but-happy thing. It’s been the going fictional trend for sixty years now. I guess the problem with doing something new is that it doesn’t stay that way.
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
Pub: 1961 by Grove Press*
Page count: 318
Page count it should have been: 212
Out of context quote: “She didn’t rush things, Germaine. She sat on the bidet soaping herself and talked to me pleasantly about this and that; she liked the knickerbockers I was wearing. Tre chic! she thought. They were once, but I’d worn the seat out of them; fortunately the jacket covered my ass.”
Inneresin’ fax: At different points in his life, Miller claimed false Jewish and Chinese ancestry. His books are laced with anti-Semitic sentiment.
Other notable works: Tropic of Capricorn, Black Spring, Sexus, Nexus, Plexus (The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy), The World of Sex
Actors who have portrayed the author in film: Rip Torn, Fred Ward, Paul Valjean, Andrew McCarthy
*Grove Press was the first US publisher to take on the book. It was initially published by a small niche press in Paris that specialized in exploiting a loop-hole in French obscenity laws: the press published dirty books in English which, since they weren’t in French, the French government wouldn’t prosecute. Tourists from the UK and the US would buy the books in Paris that they could not buy at home, since both the UK and US had puritanical censorship laws.