I had only ever heard of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (and the sequel Tropic of Capricorn) from that one episode of Seinfeld where you heard of it. Not once was it ever mentioned in high school or in the many classes I took as an English major at UT Austin. So what was this book? Context suggested it was erotica, on par with Lady Chatterley’s Lover. After all, the version I bought on Amazon has a preface by Anais Nin. Not that I haven’t read Delta of Venus front to back and sideways, but as a Science Fiction author, erotica isn’t really up my alley.
The introduction to Tropic of Cancer was written by Karl Shapiro, an American poet who died in 2000. At first, I misread and thought the Intro was written by Anais Nin, which is the only reason I read it in the first place. I’d read her work, so I was curious to hear what she thought of Miller. Two pages into the Intro, I sank into a deep depression.
Here is a quote from Shapiro’s introduction:
I call Henry Miller the greatest living author because I think he is. I do not call him a poet because he has never written a poem; he even dislikes poetry, I think. But everything he has written is a poem in the best as well as in the broadest sense of the word. Secondly, I do not call him a writer, but an author. The writer is the fly in the ointment of modern letters; Miller has waged ceaseless war against writers. If one had to type him one might call him a Wisdom writer, Wisdom literature being a type of literature which lies between literature and scripture; it is poetry only because it rises above literature and because sometimes ends up in bibles.
There is a type of writing that I learned about throughout college that I’ve long forgotten. It’s easy to read the classics and then break away from them in favor of what is easy, marketable, and universally appealing. When I sit down to write a novel, I ask myself, will anyone find this interesting or entertaining? I’m starting to wonder if that’s how art is supposed to work. Who, ultimately, are we writing for?
I also got the sense from the Introduction that one of the greatest thing modern indie writers are missing out on is a sense of community.
Orwell has written one of the best essays on Miller, although he takes a sociological approach and tries to place Miller as a Depression writer or something of the sort. […] Orwell adds that the Tropic of Cancer is almost exactly opposite! Such a thing as Miller’s book “has become so unusual as to seem almost anomalous, [for] it is the book of a man who is happy.”
I can just imagine all these writers, poets, and artists getting together to critique each other’s work. Okay, maybe not getting together, but being on a level were Orwell is critiquing you? Please. Imagine having insight like that to help you understand your writing.
Still, as I reread some of the Introduction, I can’t get over how Shapiro speaks of Miller. It’s less an introduction and more of a glimpse into a literary world that most of us will never visit, and perhaps no longer exists. That was the world I wanted to be a part of when I started writing in overlong, self-reflective sentences that seemed to wind and zag with no rhythm but somehow ended up in exactly the right place. Now that type of writing only shows up in dialogue as a character flaw.
It’s not every day that you realize you’re no longer writing honestly, that you’re more concerned with the number of reviews on Amazon than sharing emotion straight from the heart. It’s nice to have a reminder now and then, and if you haven’t had one in a while, pick up this book and feel shitty about yourself for a day or two. Then pick up your Mac and get back to work.
Oh, and as for Tropic of Cancer itself, I’m only 40 or so pages into it, but it’s excellent. Much like the introduction, it’s a whole ‘nother world. I could see the style being applied to Tech Noir, with a seedy, neon city replacing Paris. I don’t know if some of Miller’s language will appeal to you or whether his blunt description of lady parts will send you running for Harry Potter, but the writing, the stream of consciousness, the thoughts that come at you from left and right… it all fits together very well. What a shame I’m only discovering it now.
Grab a copy. It’s the best $9 you’ll spend today.
EDIT: You know what it reminds me a lot of? The Ijon Tichy books by Stanislaw Lem, that same kind of rapid-fire narration. Check those out too.