Reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, I felt like I was returning to the source. There were so many things I recognized in it from other books and other writers that I wondered if Miller was their originator or if he too got them from someone else. From the “crazy little gesture” of the Polish-Irish-English con artist that smacks of Milan Kundera’s obsession with Agnes in Immortality to the phrase “apropos of nothing at all,” Miller left me wanting to consult some grand, comprehensive encyclopedia of intertextuality to see where these ideas were coming from and who else he had influenced and who had influenced him or how much of it had come out of the atmosphere of collective inspiration.
Miller’s stripped-down language and raw reportage made me feel like I was inside the story and experiencing it with him. After leaving Serge’s flophouse, the narrator describes being at a concert: “It’s as though I had no clothes on and every pore of my body was a window and all the windows open and the light flooding my gizzards.” The narrator goes on like that for almost a page with everyday words twisted into this extraordinary description. As a reader I felt like I was an alien encountering my first concert and I loved it. It was strange but wholly evocative. Miller wasn’t writing about what happened at the concert but rather what it felt like to be at the concert. I wish I could do that.
Earlier in the novel Miller describes a dinner party at Tania’s and the effect is the same although his method is different. The paragraph contains no quotation marks but Miller is clearly capturing snippets of conversation: “Halitosis. Gaudy socks. And croutons in the pea soup, if you please. We always have pea soup Friday nights. Won’t you try a little red wine?” The paragraph goes on and on and continues with, “My next play will involve a pluralistic conception of the universe. Revolving drums with calcium lights.” Miller ties together all these short crisp sentences that are at once related to the scene but unrelated to one another so as a reader I felt like I was trapped inside a cocktail party where all the conversation was distilled and thrown at simultaneously. It is manic and dizzying and I loved it.
Miller also has a way of sketching a character with only a few short images. In reference to Olga he writes, “She weighs almost as much as a camel-backed locomotive; she drips with perspiration, has halitosis, and still wears her Circassian wig that looks like excelsior.” It’s incredible. He could have just said she was fat and had bad breath and an afro, but the way he wrote it engages the reader. The oddness of the Circassian reference threw me off balance a little and made me want to draw more of a mental image of this woman. I felt like I would recognize her anywhere.
Miller’s wild descriptions also mirror the wild bohemian lifestyle he was writing about. Even if he hadn’t written about drinking, I felt intoxicated reading these passages. There is a freedom and wildness in these descriptions that I envy. Miller manages to convey both the sense of what is going on and also the feeling of it all happening.
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