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Friday, March 30, 2018

The Tropic of Cancer

A justice of Pennsylvania's Supreme Court once said of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer that it is "not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity."  Personally, I think that makes it sound more interesting than it is.  The book is a hybrid of autobiography and fiction that is nominally focused on the life of a struggling writer in France in the 1920s and 30s.  Much more often, it's about that writer having, thinking about, and pursuing sex.  I am not a fan.

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There's much I would normally complain about in this book.  I found the writing stilted and difficult to process.  It lacks any sense of continuity, randomly popping back and forth in time.  But the characteristic which distinguished it the most to me was that it gave me flashbacks to Catcher in the Rye.  That's not a good thing.  At every turn, the protagonist struck me as a spoiled whiny misogynist. 

I don't think I'm a person who is all that aware of (let alone overly sensitive to) the ways in which women are mistreated in media, but I felt like this book was beating me over the head with its disrespect of women.  The protagonist generally only refers to women using the single most offensive word available.  I would say that the book itself, as well as the protagonist, generally treats women as objects.  While I didn't find it as prominent, anti-Semitism can be found in ready supply.  Perhaps I missed how this is actually not a horrible marginalization of women and minorities, but given the personal views Miller expressed, it would seem an uphill battle to provide any defense of his literary efforts.

I will take the word of the experts that Tropic of Cancer is an important book from a literary standpoint.  It certainly served as a focal point in litigation that helped to define how the courts view obscenity.  It's not a book I'd recommend unless someone is looking to explore how erotic literature was denigrating women in the 30s.

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