Sunday, December 06, 2020

Tropic of Capricorn (1939)

It's hard to know what to do with Henry Miller. He can be as exhilarating as he can be exasperating, often in the same (very long) paragraph. Caution: this book contains paragraphs that go on for pages. (I know I'm not one to complain about a lack of paragraphing.) Wikipedia calls Tropic of Capricorn "a prequel of sorts" to the more widely lauded Tropic of Cancer. Where Cancer riffs on Miller's life in Paris in the 1930s (his "bohemian novel," a friend calls it), Capricorn dances around his life in New York City in the 1920s, scrabbling to get by and write. These books are called "novels" because that's closer than "memoirs," but really they are something else apart entirely. They make me think most often of poetry, paintings by Picasso, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring—modern, bracing, alive. They are iconoclastic, electrifying the humdrum with holy charges. Miller even name-checks J. Krishnamurti in both—!! I often have no idea what is going on from page to page, but the sentences and vocabulary have their own charming magnetism, and in the confusion there are vivid and concrete moments of joy and desperation. It's fully energized with life, which might sound trite, but Capricorn is no pep talk jive. If Miller is fully engaged with joy he is also fully engaged with despair. One of the recurring themes is the life-sucking soullessness of most full-time jobs and their necessities. I also find the treatment of sex interesting, given the book's history of being banned until 1961. There aren't many sex scenes as such, but sex is a frequent topic of discussion and the language is raw, with animal urgency. It's not pornographic. It's hard to imagine it turns anyone on but I might be wrong about that and/or it's a generational thing? He's as matter-of-fact about getting laid as he is about eating. Both can be sensual delights and to some degree (arguable on sex, I know) both are necessities. So there tends to be a deep everydayness to his treatment of sex and an anecdotal quality to his experiences that makes them as interesting (and necessary too) as good conversation. As for organization, I don't know what to say. There's one chapter-like break, a few line breaks scattered in at random, and lots of the paragraphs go sprawling across pages. Sometimes the copy editor in me stepped forward and idly attempted to break these monsters up. But that is where I discovered how good Miller is. My presumptive exercises only showed how tightly woven together it all is, with everything including transitions packed in there basically the way it should be—the way it must be. Miller blows my mind and amazes the hell out of me sometimes. I wonder which one I should read next, and if I can even take it.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

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