In which Netty comes to the conclusion that Tropic of Cancer is the worst book she has ever read

January 12, 2014

ImageWARNING: Very strong language is used in this blog entry.

Jesus wept.

What a turgid, miasmic, steaming crockpot of merde. What an absolute, sacrilegious waste of ink and paper, not to mention time. I am never going to get back the several hours I spent wading through this teeming, wretched pile of pure bollocksing shite.

OK, let’s cut to the chase. (Oh, you thought I already had?) In my many, many years of being an avid reader, of writing about books both personally and professionally, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer takes the cake for being the most overrated, asinine, worthless piece of crap I have ever encountered. And don’t get me started on its vile, casual misogyny. Seriously. I have no idea how this book has garnered its fierce reputation. A literary classic? Give me a fucking break.

Tropic of Cancer, first published in 1934, was banned in the US and UK for some 30 years after its initial print run – supposedly because of its pornographic nature. If there was any justice in the world, it would still be banned – because of its sheer and utter awfulness. Oh, it’s obscene all right – just not for the reasons the prurients originally thought.

In my 2005 reprint, English poet Robert Nye lauds its truthfulness, comedy and joy, while American author James Frey says it was the most profound reading experience of his life. Frey also says he was drunk and high when he first read it; I don’t know what is Nye’s excuse. On the back jacket, Irish playwright Samuel Beckett calls its a momentous event in the history of modern writing; maybe he was drunk and high, too. Supposedly it was edited by French writer Anais Nin, Miller’s then-lover, who also provided him with financial and publishing support. Shame on you, Anais. I’m not much of a fan of Nin (Andy and I reviewed Delta of Venus in this blog several years ago), but as a writer she shits all over Miller.

Tropic of Cancer – dear god, there is a prequel out there, called Tropic of Capricorn, which was actually published afterwards – is basically a recollection of Miller’s time spent as an impoverished expat in France in the early 1930s. Its disjointedness presumably comes from the novel being collated from Miller’s notebooks from the period.

Basically it goes like this – Miller is down and out in Paris (apologies to George Orwell). He is preoccupied on a daily basis with two things – where his next meal and his next lay is coming from. He has a wife back home in the States (the character of Mona is based on Miller’s second wife June), which doesn’t stop his rampant, non-stop rooting. He also has a lover, Tania (supposedly based on Nin), who appears in the early part of the book. He has an awful circle of good-for-nothing, whining, self-absorbed friends off whom he regularly mooches. There is a rough narrative to it, interspersed with interminable, abominable passages of philosophising that made me want to stab myself repeatedly in order to make it please-for-the-love-of-a-merciful-god stop. Miller says it best himself, somewhere it the middle of a 20-page-long, stream-of-consciousness musing on god-knows-what: “All this unbidden, unwanted, drunken vomit will flow on endlessly through the minds of those to come in the inexhaustible vessel that contains the history of the race”. No, I have no idea what it means, either.

Now, multiply that by 319 pages of the same, sodden, sorry drivel. And feel my pain.

But it is the way Miller writes about women that left me truly gobsmacked. His characters – and he himself – repeatedly refer to them as “cunts”. And he is not just talking anatomy here, boys and girls. Most of the female characters depicted are whores, and time and again they are dismissed as greedy, stupid and half-witted. They serve one prime purpose: as a vessel for Miller’s dick – despite his distaste for the myriad sexual diseases he believes them responsible for harbouring and spreading. Here are some of his descriptions of female genitalia: “a crack”, “a hole”, “the ugly gash”, “the wound that never heals”, “the festering obscene horror”, “the dry fucked-out crater”. You want me to go on? Apparently much later in life Miller himself was “shocked by the use of my language … especially in regards to women and sex”. Yeah, buddy? You think?

Halfway through the book, Miller receives a letter from his friend Boris, a missive he dismisses as a “nutty palaver about life and death”, concluding that “nothing is happening that I can see”. He could just as easily have summed up his own book. Much earlier, he boasts he has “made a silent compact with myself not to change a line of what I write. I am not interested in perfecting my thoughts or my actions”. More’s the pity on both counts. And that’s being kind.

And I read every single, last sentence of it, so I am calling it: this book is a fucking atrocity.

That is all.


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