I unintentionally read the anti-Romeo&Juliet a little while ago: Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer [link NquiteSFW]. It is putting it rather on the glass-half-full side of things to say that the book served as a cleansing of my cynical palette before I embark on one of the more profound studies of innocence. When I finished Tropic of Cancer, I put it down with a victorious sigh, relieved that I would never have to read it again. Friend Patrick is flummoxed by this behavior in me, my determination to finish any book I've started, no matter how awful the experience. (I did give up on this book last Spring, though, because it is just freaking shite.) I can hardly explain it myself, except to say that it is perhaps a deeply ingrained habit. Whatever the cause, I generally read only one book at a time, and when I start a book, I finish it, or it finishes me.
Tropic of Cancer very nearly finished me.
It's a little troubling to have so loathed a book that has come to be widely regarded a classic. It's supposed to be a work of considerable genius, and has been praised unequivocally by folks like Orwell, Mailer and Vonnegut -- all writers I greatly enjoy and admire. This isn't the first time I've not enjoyed a classic. I've often not enjoyed Dickens and Joyce. And by often, I mean just about every time I've curled up to give them another read. I do believe, however, that this is the first time in my adult life that I've taken such an active distaste for an accredited author's work. That is to say, it is unique in my experience to feel revulsion for something I've read, and perhaps this speaks more to Miller's genius as might any actual critical response I could make. It's not prudery, per se -- I love vicarious sex and violence, whether that's a good or bad thing. Love Anais Nin, so far loathe Miller. So what is it?
It is, I believe, the cynicism. The sheer, unrelenting, unapologetic cynicism. To hear Miller tell of it, I would not have made it out of 1930s Paris alive; there are suicides in this book, and they are all-too understandable to me. It seemed as though every character maintained his or her existence merely to progress to the next selfish experience, and after not too long I was utterly bogged down in the sense of hopeless, purposeless puppetry. I read Of Human Bondage not too long ago, and it was almost as if Miller had taken Carey's latter (also frustrating) selflessness and turned it on its ear so hard it went into coma. Miller's narrator (or voice, depending on the ratio of memoir to narrative at a given moment) is given to short sentences of profound and usually brutal imagery and metaphor that definitely would have appealed to me when I was sixteen. Now, they strike me as naive and self-centered and, as far as I was able to tell, the narrator undergoes no lasting change in the course of the story. Was there even joy in this story, really? Miller is famous for philosophically sucking the marrow from life, but this seemed more to me like continually jumping off a building for the three seconds of the sensation of flying.
What this is really about then, for me, is a struggle to process my experience in reading the book. How did, or will, the book change me? You could make the case that it won't . . . but that I feel it already has, and what remains is to understand that effect. It hasn't sapped my hope, at least. If anything, it makes me rail against its perspective, which seems so short-sighted and inconsequential that I want to grab the narrator by the neck and just shake him until he snaps out of it (or something else snaps). Why do none of these people believe in anything? What drives them to write, or do anything lasting, if it is all about survival and gratification? Maybe these are the questions Miller wanted us to ask, or maybe I'm just to narrow in my perspective on the era. If I had to say what effect the book has had on me, I'd guess at this point that it has strengthened my resolve to help and inspire others through my work. And I have to confess that I hope Henry Miller would've hated that.
Lest this read as some offended rant against a slice of literature history, I will say that at times I felt the raw power of Henry Miller's control of the language, and his willingness to savor words without making them self-important or inaccessible. Some of his ideas rang out, too, despite my prejudice against the perspective of his narrator. I wrote earlier in the month about the supposed virtue of beauty in art, and a strong argument could be made for there being a unique and important beauty in Miller's work. For me, however, I'm thrilled to go work on a love story very soon (and possibly even more thrilled to finally be on to reading it on the subway). The love story, for some people, and I'm going to do my damnedest to make it a guilty pleasure to begin, and full of consequence and beauty at the end. And maybe that's what Miller meant.
But I really have no idea.