Tropic of Cancer, to use a colloquialism Miller might have approved of, is a cunt’s hair from being EXACTLY my kind of book. However, that one cunt hair is thick, long, filthy and stuck beneath the inflamed foreskin of my oh-so-phallic sense of literary fulfilment.
It is an important and relevant book for anyone with an interest in Modernism or the depiction of sexuality in literature, and for anyone with more than a passing interest in the Beats I would deem it essential reading, as it basically does what they were doing (perhaps not as well) 20 years earlier.
It is a novel that drips with an honesty and an openness regarding sex and sexuality that is wonderfully impressive for when it was written. Compared to that other famously banned book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the sex here is NEVER about affection, always about action. One is a tribute to sexual love, the other a peon to rampant male sexuality.
And that is one of the two big faults with the novel – the misogyny. The referring to all women as “cunts”, for example… Yes, it is problematic, but, I’m afraid, it is a piece dealing openly and honestly with jocular, ribald, early 20th century heterosexual sex from a male perspective… It is the directness and frankness that makes the novel fascinating. It is not erotic – the sex scenes are explicit, yes, but detailed, all close-ups and dirt and reality, not come-shots and fantasy and nothing. There are diseases, there are pubes, there are douche bags, fish skin condoms, quack gonorrhoea cures, mud, shit, vomit, booze, come, menstrual blood… It is a visceral and a believable exploration of a messy man’s messy sex life. It is full of the nasty and the diseased, the ill, the insane, the corrupt, the infested, the hungry, the lusty, the poor and the addicted… But it is not negative, it is neither critical nor is it polemic… There is no grand absconding or change of heart, no moral conclusion, no syphyllitic decline, no horror… This is a look up the spread cockhole of sexuality with a love and a joy and an acceptance of FUCKING as a source of happiness, despite a full knowledge of the realities of the flesh…
And THAT is why I didn’t love this book, because Henry Miller loved LIFE. He loved the dirt, the pain, the fecundity of existence as much as he enjoyed its beauty… And that is something I cannot and do not see. So, although stylistically and thematically – SEXED UP MODERNISM??? WHAT COULD BE BETTER??? – I loved every page, when it comes to the ideology of the piece – that happiness through flesh is acceptable, that life is good, that every sensation, whatever it is, is a joy to experience… I can’t swallow. So here my depressive world view is shading my enjoyment of literature.