Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller: Vibrant, sexy, terrible and free

Miller’s writing is filled with bursting possibility, even in its moments of despondency

The Henry Miller who wrote Tropic of Cancer was one mad bastard. Mad, and perhaps brave, or perhaps so totally without inhibiting hope, that he actually managed to do that magical, wildly-sought-after thing: put down on the page the immediacy, energy, seediness and glorious beauty of life lived in the body, daily.

(Maybe he was just delirious with hunger, which would appear highly possible, based on how often he mentions being ravenous in the book.)

Whatever he was, Christ, this book is a tonic – reading it is like the first sip of a stiff drink in the evening, just before the light has faded, before you’ve decided which of many possible parties you might attend (after which you’ll progress, naturally, to a jazz bar, or a salsa bar, or who knows where, later). His writing is vibrant and sexy and terrible and free. That’s it – it’s just so exceptionally free, filled with bursting possibility, even in its moments of despondency, of lostness and bewilderment.

There have been many attempts to create this effect of total truthfulness, of seeming to have almost vomited impressions on to the page, apparently without a second thought for how they might be received; to achieve the effect of an almost mystical transcription of intense, even flagrant, reality. These efforts are especially usual among young male writers, those bursting with spunk and ambition; take Kerouac’s roadtrip, or Knausgård’s interminable struggle, or the many, many others who ape the feckless abandonment so intoxicating in Miller’s writing. But none, so far as I have read, has managed to come anywhere close to the poetry, the Inferno-style physicality, of Tropic of Cancer.

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Reading the book, it seems somehow miraculous that the words agree to stay in their correct positions on the page – their purpose, here, is so savagely unruly. This unruliness proves infectious – flicking through the text, I feel myself increasingly drawn away from my laptop, and instead towards some poorly lit dive, ideally with early-20th century dancing girls and a bottle of all-too-quickly disappearing Champagne hanging from my wrist (ah, to dream!).