Friday, April 16, 2010

Book Review – Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Viewer discretion is advised for both this review and this novel!

**Spoiler Alert

The first time I’d heard of Henry Miller was while watching Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, as he tempted the teenage daughter into reading The Rosy Crucifixion: Sexus, Plexus and Nexus. I assumed by the books’ titles that Miller was probably a sexually explicit author. Well, I was right. What I didn’t realize was when these books were written, and how revolutionary that made him.

Tropic of Cancer in fact - one of Miller’s first books - was published in 1934, and due to its graphic content was banned in the United States until its publication there in 1961. This historical piece of fiction actually led to a trial in 1964, looking into findings of obscenity, whereby the ruling of this trial paved the way for other authors and their adherence to changing censorship laws in the United States. This in and of itself makes Tropic of Cancer an important read. Enjoying what is read however, is entirely up to the reader.

Tropic of Cancer is a memoir and sometimes fictional account of Henry Miller’s vagabond years as a starving artist, in search of himself and his artistic freedom, in Paris during the 1930’s. The story follows the lives of Miller and his crass, whoring and boozing ex-pat, artist friends as they try to live life to the fullest on the streets of this ever exciting and romantic (and I use this term loosely) old city. In a sentence, it appears to be a coming of age story for and of the immature man. When we’re not following the wild lives of these childish men and their sleazy antics, we are left to wallow in Miller’s incessant and self-indulgent ramblings.

It may very well be that there aren’t enough brain cells in my head to comprehend what is said to be Henry Miller’s genius, but I found his stream-of-conscious musings to be everything from ridiculously outlandish, to a complete and utter bore. However, once in a while, I will admit, I found him to make sense and say something profound. I appreciated his rants about the stifling and constricting life of America and its fast-paced, rat race, where art is dead and money reigns supreme. He relays his observations that in America there is immense pressure to be something, while in Paris you can just be, and if you end up as something, it was because you got lucky. I think it is important that people take away his message about living life for you and what makes you happy, as opposed to living your life in the brown box that society in America wants to put you in, where happiness is often an illusion. That being said, nearing the end of the book he also comes to terms with his delusions of grandeur which kept him and his friends seeking happiness at the bottom of a bottle, or by staring into the gaping hole of a Parisian prostitute. (This really takes place in the book, with a flashlight, if I remember correctly.) Hence it is through his meanderings that we observe his slow, yet eventual growth as an artist and a man.

Throughout Tropic of Cancer Miller is always ravenously hungry and is looking to be satiated, be it with food, creativity, excitement, sex or companionship. Although he may have depended on his empty pocket to keep him artistically focused, it was simply detestable how he would mooch off of others, even steal from a lowly prostitute, all puffed up and possible based on his beastly sense of entitlement. As soon as someone he was staying with (for free, I might add) would ask or expect something from Miller, he would feel trapped and need to move on immediately.

I’ve heard multiple readers refer to Miller as highly misogynistic, since every woman in Tropic of Cancer is a “whore” or a needy “c@#%” (a nasty four letter word that most women find highly offensive), who is trying to rope a man into marriage. Except of course for the one woman that Miller seems to love - in whatever capacity he is able – Mona. It would appear that the love is unrequited, and maybe that is the reason he puts down women as much as he does; he has been deeply hurt.

In my opinion, Miller is an equal opportunity hater. Most of the people in the world he presents us are deplorable, not just the women. And although he doesn’t run around calling every man he sees a “dickwad” (or whatever the male equivalent to “c@#%” would be), he doesn’t really have to. Their actions speak louder than any label. At any rate, living in a world of cheap sex, where the women are using him as much as he uses them, and where infidelity is the running standard with both men and women, I can kind of see why his views are as such.

Throughout most of the book it would seem Miller’s main point would be that the past is gone and the future may never come. All we have is the present, so enjoy it. Even if it has to be with a case of gonorrhea, while sleeping on a park bench, under a newspaper! Tropic of Cancer will give you food for thought regarding the comparison between old-world, artistic Paris and the new and artistically-benign America. You might scowl or laugh as he bluntly wrestles with the various themes of sex, poverty, writing and friendship, but either way, you will be affected.

3.5/5 Snakes

Below catch a quick, captivating glimpse into the 1970’s adaptation starring Rip Torn as Henry Miller.


  1. The first time I'd heard of Miller or this book, was through the Seinfeld "The Library" episode. I still haven't read anything by him.

  2. The first time I'd heard of Miller was through reading Erica Jong. There's a character in her second novel, How To Save Your Own Life that is clearly Henry Miller.

  3. Thanks for visiting my site. Gave me the chance to discover yours.

  4. I found your blog through the BB Hop.

    Great review. This in itself is enough for me to sign up as a follower.

    I read Tropic of Cancer after I read Tropic of Capricorn, which was a mistake. I admit I was looking for the dirty bits because I wanted to know what all the fuss was about, but Capricorn doesn't have dirty bits, at least not enough as you'd notice. It's got the ranting, the poverty, the grime, but set in New York instead of Paris. By the time I'd slogged my way through that one, I really didn't have the energy to find anything interesting or enjoyable in Cancer.

  5. This is a really insightful review! Even though I've heard of Henry Miller a lot, I never knew his story. It is interesting though the way he compares how Americans need to be something and Parisians can just be.

    Thanks for stopping by and following my blog!

  6. John~ I have heard about that episode from a couple of different people now, so I'm itching to see it. I will have to find it to download.

    Bybee~ I've yet to read anything by Erica Jong, although she is on my list. Maybe I should start with that one. ;-)

    Book quoter~ The pleasure is mine.

    Rose City Reader~ Thanks. I almost went through the same scenario with Cancer and Capricorn, as I have a copy of Capricorn already on my TBR shelf. I am thankful that I did a little search first to find out what the order was. From what I understand he wrote Tropic of Capricorn first, even though it would be the book to follow Cancer. That could explain the change in his writing style from one book to the next.

    Carrie~ Thanks. Miller does have some insigtful points when he is not being a total jerk, lol.

  7. loved your review of Miller's Tropic of Cancer! I wrote my own comments to myself about the book and later ran into your review on and saw that we shared the exact opinion about the book (good,bad, ugly:). Your observations were so clear and your style of writing is witty and direct.
    Thank you!