Review Of Henry
Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer and Tropic Of Capricorn
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/24/06
There is truth to the claim that sometimes a bad writer can be closer to greatness than a good writer, because the bad writer may just be slightly off in all the areas he or she needs to be great in, while the good writer is merely solid in all areas, but never comes close to greatness in any area. This, however, is not the case with Henry Miller. He is a bad writer because he is virtually void of any writing talent. Let’s go down the checklist: Imagery- no. Narrative ability- no. Characterization- no. Depth- no. Insight- no. Dialogue- no. Poesy- no. Wit- no. I could go on, but you get the general drift. Instead, Miller was one of the earliest examples of a talentless badass who made a name for himself on reputation alone. Yes, he may have been well read, but I couldn’t write worth a lick. In this regard he was a prosaic Ezra Pound, save the talent, or an early Beatnik, sans the bongos. One might say he was America’s Parisian Rimbaud, except that there were glimmers of talent in that overhyped scatologist. Miller has nothing but books larded with banality, dullness, and the overuse of curse words. And, no, he does not use them creatively in the way, say, 1999’s South Park feature film did.
I read both of Miller's Tropics books on back-to-back days, and there really is not much to either. Imagine Pound writing fiction on a bad day at the asylum. Of course, I recall once having a conversation at a pizzeria with a drunken bisexual wannabe writer about the books, which I’d only glanced at at the time, and he raved over their brilliance. Why? Because talentless wannabe writers love to promote and ejaculate over material that any other talentless hack could have written. I don’t doubt that hack I knew could have equaled Miller’s garbage. But, the fact is that neither should have been published. Even the banal and lazy ravings of Postmodernists have more to offer than mere bilge. Not much more, but some. The out that defenders of such garbage- the forebear of execrable pissings like James Frey’s Oprah-endorsed A Million Little Pieces- never rely on the actual work to defend it. No one ever points to gorgeous prose, wonderful moments, talk stolen from reality, for the obvious reason that there are no such things to recommend in the work. Instead, they haul out canards about ‘truth’, ‘honesty’, ‘pain’, and the like. And, being banned never helps create demand. As overrated as I think the later works of Joyce are- Ulysses and Finnegans Wake- both are more deserving of study than this bilge. Even Jack Kerouac’s droning On The Road is a masterpiece by comparison to these two utter pieces of nothingness.
Tropic Of Cancer was written in 1934, and Tropic Of Capricorn
in 1938. They are his two most famous works- rivaled only by his Sexus, Plexus,
and Nexus trilogy. Had only Miller spent more time working on writing
than his own most obvious talent, public relations, he may have been a greeting
card writer in the offing. Here is his most famous quote from Cancer: ‘This
is not a book. This is a libel, slander, defamation of character. This
is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged
insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man,
Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty.’ Great, eh? Both books are basically the
autobiographies of Miller, with the usual dash of braggadocio and bullshit
thrown in. Of course, nothing much really happens in either book. Miller fucks,
sucks, drinks and stinks. Yet, the work is not pornographic, as its detractors
over the years have claimed. Porno actually induces a visceral reaction. This is
just dull as sin. Miller was over forty when he wrote it, yet I have read the
diaries of fourteen year olds that were more interesting. Boredom, not
profanity, is Miller’s greatest sin. Cancer goes on for 318 pages, while
Capricorn drones on an even longer 30 pages more. There are no formal chapters
in either book, but this makes sense. Does one consider the act of pinching off
a log of shit an act of finality? Of course not. The French often rejoice in the
fact that they can see talent where Americans cannot. While there is legitimate
debate over the merits of Jerry Lewis films there really is none over Miller.
Even the French don’t pretend any longer. Yes, the Germans still defend
Bukowski, but give them another twenty years. The truth is that the pre-War
Paris of the 30s was the epicenter of indulgent expatriate American prose
writing. Hemingway and Fitzgerald, at least, had talent to begin with, despite
their flaws. Miller needed to set himself apart. If he couldn’t do it with
words, why not shit?
Miller’s writing is so puerile it makes D.H. Lawrence look senescent. Miller’s descriptions of sex are so absurd, unintendedly, that they one might actually believe the man never was conscious during the act. He both degrades and hypes it, rather than looking at it with dispassion and examining what may lay inside- figuratively and literally. He has not any idea what to do with narrative, nor even what it is, or can do. Of course, many defenders state that this sex obsession is a sign of Miller’s politicality, when really it is a sign of his dementia and stunted personal growth. Yes, Hank, women can be bitches and cunts, but coming from a dick like you, where’s the pejorative? Miller tries to make suffering seem chic, yet the lie is not only that it’s not, but those who are born poor know it’s not, and only a pansy bourgeois elitist who goes slumming would think it is. Every ten pages there’s a rare sentence or two that shows a glimmer of poetry, but the dull and unrealistic conversations, obsession with shit, vermin, drink, sex, and disease then reassert themselves, like a boner that needs an encounter with Lorena Bobbitt.
Let’s see, what else might you need to know? Oh, one book is set mainly in Paris, the other in New York. If I have not yet let slip which book is set in which it does not matter. There is no plot. Am I going in circles? This technique is known as recapitulation. Imagine me stating, ‘There is no plot. Am I going in circles? This technique is known as recapitulation,’ over and again for three hundred plus pages, with a few fucks and cunts tossed in. There- now you need not even buy the Cliff’s Notes. Let me see- can one identify with the lead characters in either book? No, they are all repugnant, and, again, even more damningly- DULL! Yes, they’re racists, liars, Anti-Semites, perverts, drama queens, misogynists, misandrists, wannabe artistes- in short, the perfect fodder for talentless hacks, for most of them share the same qualities.
The truth is that Henry Miller was the worst example of a writer who really needed an editor. Yes, David Foster Wallace had an editor prune three thousand pages of his Infinite Jest down to a mere thousand, and still couldn’t find anything worthwhile, but here there was obviously not even an attempt. Perhaps the only thing that will stick in my memory about these books is that, in a weird way, they remind me of some of the sleazy and bigoted writings of the worst bloggers online. And, like the talentless hacks who like to praise talentless writing, those online hacks show that even their putrescent complaints are old, really old and formulaic. Miller even makes his famously narcissistic lover, Anäis Nin, seem deep, by comparison, with his stream-of-dullness writing. Of the two books, were I two choose which one would be the greater torture to reread, I would choose Cancer, for Capricorn is slightly more coherent, and a bit more mature. It’s relative, of course, and still mostly dull as….oh, hell, I deserve it, SHIT!, but it at least attempts to give you context for its garbage. Some critics have said that Miller was a man of attitudes, not ideas. Wrong again. Miller was a cipher as a writer, but a marvelous promoter- the P.T. Barnum of early 20th Century literature. And this should be acknowledged, for it was his only talent. Yet, to even attempt a deep analysis of what is clearly one of the premier put-ons in literature is waste of time and effort. And I’m hardly a prude. I simply demand quality. Henry Miller simply says less with more words than just about any writer that has ever been published.
If other critics did he’d be forgotten now. Let’s see….oh, a quote from the book. No, got that. Gotta end? Ah, shit! No, that didn’t work. Now I know how that talentless drunken bisexual hack at the pizzeria felt. I’m doomed.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.]
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