Tropic of Cancer details Henry's Miller's take on la vie boheme of artists between Paris and New York, mostly, in the 1930s. It describes how an artist survives taking advantage of dimwitted, sometimes well-meaning, quasi-patrons and their money.
One of the main themes is how the main character and whoever he's running with at the time chase and usually catch women. A good deal of the success of the chase seems to be founded in a broke artist's ability to pay as little as possible to women who can be caught for the right price. I'm not even sure what to make of the manner with which Mr. Miller refers to women.
Most of the time he drops the c-bomb when referring to women. In particular, he drops the carpet c-bombs early in the book. I read on the back of the book that Tropic of Cancer was banned as obscene for 27 years after its publication in 1934 in Paris. I wouldn't be surprised if the rapid fire usage of the c word was a big reason why.
I have a five-year-old daughter and I'll admit that I cringed when I first read it because I felt it was degrading to women. Now that I think about it, given that so many of them were hookers, perhaps the women had beat Mr. Miller to it by degrading themselves. In either case, my judgment is in full swing if I conclude either way.
So I kept reading through the early parts, in many ways because I thought it was "controversial". I proved to myself again that controversial doesn't always mean interesting. I didn't find any of the characters particularly interesting. I can't even quite tell you exactly what the book was about.
The best parts for me were nestled in between really long (and long-winded) paragraphs wherein Mr. Miller described people, events and places that didn't engage me into the story. A few of the better parts/quotes I read:
- In describing an artist he wrote: "An artist is always alone – if he is an artist. No, what an artist needs is loneliness." I like the idea, but candidly, the italicized is feels arrogant and if it's not meant to be ironic, it isn't nor is it funny.
- By far the best part of the book was when he described going to a ritzy symphony which he described: "Even before the music begins there is that bored look on people's faces, a polite form of self-imposed torture, the concert. For a moment, when the conductor raps with his little wand, there is a tense spasm of concentration followed almost immediately by a general slump, a quiet vegetable sort of repose induced by the steady, uninterrupted drizzle for m the orchestra."
That's about as good and as accurate as it gets when describing how many "cultured" folks survive their evenings. They go to appreciate the finer things, because that's what they are supposed to, of course they don't appreciate (or even like) them.
Outside of flashes of relatively interesting observations such as these two, the book was boring. It was frustrating because just when I would be ready to stop reading the book, one of these types of quotes appeared.
It's a bit like I used to be with golf. I would go out for six hours of self-judgment and expletives that would make most priests I knew growing up proud (judgment) and Quentin Tarantino blush (language). In spite of that, I would hit one, maybe two shots close to perfect each round and for quite a while, it kept me coming back.
For me, I wish that I could take a mulligan on my time forever lost reading Tropic of Cancer.