Tropic of Cancer is totally NSFW

14 Oct

Henry Miller would have loved the Internet.

I don’t mean like role-playing games or white text on black MS DOS screens, for which he was, technically speaking, still alive. I mean like today’s Internet, all self-absorbed and indulgent like it is. All “this is what I ate for breakfast, and this is who I hung out with, and this is the boring shit we did.” That Internet Henry Miller would have been all about.

It’s actually a fun activity to read books written before 1950 and mine them for unintentionally prescient quotes. Tropic of Cancer, the seminal—trust me, semen-sounding words will not be the raunchiest elements of this post—autobiographical novel from Miller, is full of these kinds of snippets, lines like “so fast and furiously am I compelled to live now that there is scarcely time to record even these fragmentary notes.” Seriously, the man would have loved Twitter.

I had few expectations going into Tropic of Cancer, about which I knew essentially two things: (1) It is perhaps the most banned book of all time, whose 1934 publishing predated its actual release in the U.S. by nearly 30 years, and (2) there’s a boob on the cover. And honestly, I think some part of me figured that 1934 smut couldn’t possibly be 2011 smut; like maybe Miller would talk about how he had “lain” with some ladies, or kicked it with a few prostitutes, but that’s it. Hilariously, however, my illusions about this book’s PG-13 rating were dispelled somewhere around page 5 (fahreals NSFW):

“O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out. Your Sylvester! Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame a cunt. I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. Your Sylvester is a little jealous now? He feels something, does he? He feels the remnants of my big prick. I have set the shores a little wider, I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me, you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel. I am fucking you, Tania, so that you’ll stay fucked. And if you are afraid of being fucked publicly I will fuck you privately. I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris’ chin. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces…”

WELL. THEN. Keep in mind that I was reading this on the subway, already self-conscious about the Boob Cover and now hoping, praying, that my fellow passengers weren’t doing that New York thing where people discreetly read over your shoulder. If someone had so much as given me a hairy eye (that’s a thing, right?) I would have turned beet red, screamed “It’s literature, I swear! It’s fucking literature!!” and run away.

I’ll admit it’s difficult not to get sidetracked by the language in Tropic of Cancer; a quick search on Amazon suggests Miller uses the word “cunt” 49 times, but I swear it must be more. And it seems to this day rather unprecedented to consider as literature a book that refers to women only as cunts, bitches, sows and whores—in fairness, many of the women are actually prostitutes—and talks in more detail about the anatomical elements of the vagina than…well, than anything I’ve ever read. But after you’ve gotten past the language and the subject matter—it’s a little like watching Striptease; by the end you find nipples entirely underwhelming—Tropic of Cancer really is an enjoyable novel.

Which, novel is a bit of a misnomer. This is more or less a travel diary of Miller’s own exploits, and Tropic of Cancer’s “characters” are basically his real-life friends from time spent in Paris. Generally speaking, it doesn’t matter—it’s more interesting to imagine Miller’s anecdotes as real gallivanting done by real people—though I did feel a little bad reading about his wife, who spends most of the book stranded and/or ill in America while her husband sleeps his way through ole’ Pari.

But while there is plenty of information on everyone’s various female conquests, there’s also underneath all the smut a portrait of a certain lifestyle that is simultaneously anachronistic and relevant. No, Paris is probably not crawling with syphilis, bedbugs and tuberculosis anymore, and I assume prostitution is no longer the profession du jour, but there is certainly still a culture of people, in Paris and elsewhere, who kinda feel like steady employment is overrated, and for whom the ideal life involves little more than rich food, good wine and random sex. Today we just call them hipsters. (Heyoooo)

No but seriously, I do wonder what the reception to Tropic of Cancer would be if it came out today. Even with our increasingly lax attitude towards sex, I still believe this book would go over like a ton of bricks. Not among the reading population at large—we live for envelope-pushing—but with the same crowd that condemns Twilight for teaching tweens to sext vampires, or has a conniption whenever someone says “bitch” on TV. There is, among all the sex, some really interesting insight in Tropic of Cancer: on America versus Europe, on the rich, on relationships. I just don’t know if it’d be enough, even in 2011, to undo 49 cunts.

THE VERDICT:

It’s easy to focus on the elements of Tropic of Cancer that distinguish it from other books, which are ironically the same two elements that comprised my entire knowledge of this book before I started it. But I also happened to really like Tropic of Cancer, something that will become evident when I find time to type up the 20+ quotes I dog-eared throughout its 300 pages. Sure, Miller is an abhorrent womanizer who mooches off his friends and disregards emotion as a sign of frivolity and weakness. But it’s not like I have to hang out with the guy.

I not only wonder what the reception would be for a 2011 Tropic of Cancer, but also wonder what Henry Miller would have been like if he’d spent his early 30s in sexed-up 21st century America instead of 1930s Paris. I suspect that other than the lack of readily available prostitutes—though there’s always Vegas—he’d fit right in.

THE FACTS:

TITLE: Tropic of Cancer
——————————————————————–
AUTHOR: Henry Miller
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PAGES: 318 (in paperback)
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ALSO WROTE: Tropic of Capricorn, Black Spring
———————————————————————
SORTA LIKE: John Updike meets Jack Kerouac
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FIRST LINE(S): “I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.”

2 Responses to “Tropic of Cancer is totally NSFW”

  1. EB October 14, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    I covered madeline’s eyes while reading the excerpt. The idea of reading it on the subway makes me blush…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A Profound Experience of Art « Sorry Television - July 3, 2012

    […] SORTA LIKE:  The Ask meets Tropic of Cancer […]

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