I didn’t think it was possible, but I liked this one even less than Tropic of Cancer. Seriously, I was in no way a fan of this book. The amount of raunchy sleazy descriptions in Tropic of Capricorn, if possible out weight those in the first novel.
The only thing I can truly say I’m grateful for is that I got it off my shelf where it’s languished since the 2010 Boston Book Festival (it was the last one!). It also counts toward my Classics Club list so yay for that too!
I can’t even pretend it’s hard to say why I didn’t like this book, it really was just too much sex, misogyny, sexual assault and crass language. When you add in the stream-of-consciousness I’m surprised I even got through the book. It’s no wonder the book was banned in America (Wikipedia link) for 30 years. I don’t believe in book banning or censorship, but this really tested my limits.
The saddest part about this book and Miller’s writing in general is that he is an excellent writer. There were passages that struck me with their beauty. I even have a quote from him in my sidebar! Definitely read a few below, especially the 60-61 quote, his ability to personify people and their actions is outstanding. It’s just too bad that there are passages such as these two which overshadow all the beauty he does write,
“In to each and every one of them as I shuffle about, I throw an imaginary fuck. The place is just plastered with cunt and fuck and that’s why I’m reasonably sure to find my old friend MacGregor here.” (104)
“Men like to fuck, and so do women. It doesn’t harm anybody and it doesn’t mean you have to love everyone you fuck does it? I wouldn’t want to be in love; it must be terrible to have to fuck the same man all the time, don’t you think? Listen, if you didn’t fuck anybody but me all the time you’d get tired of me quick, wouldn’t you? Sometimes it’s nice to be fucked by some one you don’t know at all.” (262)
I will say Miller’s inclusion of a crass female perspective considering how many times there were what I would consider rape scenes (three within the first 75 pages) impressed me.
The only other thing I was “happy” about was Miller’s attempted explanation for his writing style,
“The million words or so which I had written, mind you, well ordered, well connected, were as nothing to me—crude ciphers from the old stone age—because the contact was through the head and the head is a useless appendage unless you’re anchored in midchannel deep in the mud. Everything I had written before was museum stuff, and most writing is still museum stuff and that’s why it doesn’t catch fire, doesn’t inflame the world. I was only a mouthpiece for the ancestral race which was talking through me; even my dreams were not authentic, not bona fide Henry Miller dreams.To sit still and think one thought which would come up out of me, out of the life buoy, was a Herculean task. I didn’t lack thoughts nor words nor the power of expression— I lacked something much more important: the lever which would shut off the juice. The bloody machine wouldn’t stop, that was the difficulty. I was not only int he middle of the current but the current was running through me and I had no control over it whatever.” (284)
He was bucking the traditions and trends of writers and I can totally get behind that, but page-upon-page of stream of consciousness that is also coated in hyper-sexuality and references to women as cunts and an entire section about a man’s obsession with his penis are just too much.
It is also very hard to separate the author from the character: same name, similar stories. So many authors I have read in the past couple of years have done this pseudo-fiction/fictionalized version of their personal exploits. It’s a really smart and useful writing tool, but in this case it was too much.
Recommendation: Pass. Unless you really like gratuitous sex/rape scenes or stream-of-consciousness. It’s dated and I don’t see how many people would/could enjoy this.
Opening Line: “Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.”
Closing Line: “Tack your womb up on my wall, so that I may remember you. We must get going. Tomorrow, tomorrow. . . . – September, 1938, Villa Seurat, Paris” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)
Additional Quotes from Tropic of Capricorn
“Everything was for tomorrow, but tomorrow never came. The present was only a bridge and on this bridge they are still groaning as the world groans, and not one idiot ever thinks of blowing up that bridge.” (11)
“Wherever I went I fomented discord—not because I was idealistic but because I was like a searchlight exposing the stupidity and futility of everything. Besides, I wasn’t a good ass licker. That marked me, no doubt.” (16)
“America is pacifistic and cannibalistic. Outwardly it seems to be a beautiful honeycomb, with all the drones crawling over each other in a frenzy of work; inwardly it’s a slaughterhouse, each man killing off his neighbor and sucking the juice from his bones. Superficially it looks like a bold, masculine world; actually it’s a whorehouse run by women, with the native sons acting as pimps and the bloody foreigners selling their flesh. Nobody knows what it is to sit on his ass and be content. That happens only in the films where everything is faked, even the fires of hell. The whole continent is sound asleep and in that sleep a grand nightmare is taking place.” (42)
“What I had begun, in brief, was a book of the hours, of the tedium and monotony of my life in the midst of a ferocious activity.” (50)
“Now people are books to me. I read them from cover to cover and toss them aside. I devour them, one after the other. And the more I read the more insatiable I become. There is no limit to it. There could be no end, and there was none, until inside me a bridge began to form which united me again with the current of life from which as a child I had been separated.” (60-61)
“The learning we received only tended to obscure our vision. From the day we went to school we learned nothing; on the contrary, we were made obtuse, we were wrapped in a fog of words and abstractions.” (129)
“To come into his presence gave me the sensation of being undressed, or rather peeled, for it was much more than mere nakedness which he demanded of the person he was talking to. In talking to me he addressed himself to a me whose existence I had only dimly suspected, the me, for example, which emerged when, suddenly, reading a book, I realized that I had been dreaming. Few books had this faculty of putting me into a trance, this trance of utter lucidity in which, unknown to oneself, one makes the deepest resolutions.” (149)
“When he went to sleep in the Morris chair his lower jaw dropped like a hinge that has become unloosened; he had always been a good snorer but now he snored louder than ever, like a man who was in truth dead to the world. His snores, in fact, were very much like the death rattle, except that they were punctuated by an intermittent long drawn out whistling of the peanut stand variety. He seemed, when he snored, to be chopping the whole universe to bits so that he who succeeded him would have enough kindling wood to last a lifetime. It was the most horrible and fascinating snoring that I have ever listened to: It was stertorous and stentorian, morbid and grotesque; at times it was like an accordion collapsing, at other times like a frog croaking in the swamps; after a prolonged whistle there sometimes followed a frightful wheeze as if he were giving up the ghost, then it would settle back again into a regular rise and fall, a steady hollow chopping as though he stood stripped to the waist , with ax in hand, before the accumulated madness of all the bric-à-brac of this world.” (166)
“We are traveling faster than the lightning calculator, faster than starlight, faster than the magician can think. Each second is a universe of time. And each universe of time is but a wink of sleep in the cosmogony of speed. When speed comes to its end we shall be there, punctual as always and blissfully undenominated. We shall shed our wings, our clocks and our mantelpieces to lean on. We will rise up feathery and jubilant, like a column of blood, and there will be no memory to drag us down again.” (196)
“It is a realm of new vibrations—to us only a misty nebula, for we have yet to pass beyond our own conception of suffering. We have yet to ingest this nebulous world, its travail, its orientation. I was permitted to hear an incredibly music lying prone and indifferent to the sorrow about me. I heard the gestation of the new world, the sound of torrential rivers taking their course, the sound of stars grinding and chafing, of fountains clotted with blazing gems. All music is still governed by the old astronomy, is the product of the hothouse, a panacea for Weltschmerz. Music is still the antidote for the nameless, but this is not yet music. Music is planetary fire, an irreducible which is all sufficient; it is the slate-writing of the gods, the abracadabra which the learned and the ignorant alike muff because the axle has been unhooked. Look to the bowels, to the unconsolable and ineluctable! Nothing is determined nothins is settled or solved. All this that is going on, all music, all architecture, all law, all government, all invention, all discovery—all this is velocity exercises in the dark, Czerny with a capital Zed riding a crazy white horse to a bottle of mucilage.” (251)