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[783] Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller


“The cancer of time is eating us away. Our hero killed ourselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, thus, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death.” (1)

Tropic of Cancer doesn’t adhere to fiction’s convention. The 1934 controversial book, banned until the U.S. Sepreme Court lifted the ban, is more autobiographical in style, written in stream-of-consciousness that captures the details and nuances of a particular moment in history in as intense a way as possible. It’s filled with Miller’s anecdotal tales that are exuberant and obscene. The book is set in Paris in the years after World War One, a time when most young people, like Miller and those he encounters, have turned permanently cynical and nihilistic, so horrified as they aptly were over what exact carnage humans have proven themselves capable of to the business of warfare.

Even as the world falls apart the Paris that belongs to Matisse shudders with bright, gasping orgasms, the air itself is steady with a stagnant sperm, the trees tangled like hair. (166)

In Miller’s hand the world is an impasse, on the verge of annihilation, with people lining up to the prison of death. In search for some kind of utopia, these young expatriates, feeling anachronistic with the time they live in, plunge into such bawdy adventures intertwined with sex and substances. Down and out in Paris, Miller lives hand-to-mouth, eking out a living with a variety of jobs. He’s at the mercy of rich patrons for whom he writes pseudoymous letters and books. The artistic pursuits do not make their lives easier. But they take life lightly. The result is an entire neighborhood that becomes boisterous, drunken melting pots, packed to the gunwales with bohemians from around the world and all stations of life who no longer give a crap about anything. they embrace such things as casual sex and exotic drugs in a way no other generation has embraced them before, as they party the way to apocalypse they are all sure is right around the corner.

The book reflects on a generation lost in the underworld of seed sex. For Miller who arrived on the Left Bank of Paris in the 1930s, he was the quintessence of abject failure. All he had going for him was creative rage, mixed with some artistic vision of the truly avant garde. But those he ecounters are borderline hopeless cases and psychopaths, all of whom are trying to make the best of Paris and making sense of their lives.

318 pp. Grove Press. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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