The thoughts, stories and advice of Bill Riddell.

Tropic of Cancer – Book Review

August 6th, 2009 Posted in advice, writing

I had been encouraged to read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer by quite a few people over the last year or two. It sounded, good so I succumbed and ordered the book. The novel sat for several months in my anti-library until it called out to me a few weeks ago.

At first Tropic of Cancer failed to live up to the hype. Expectations about a book far too frequently lead to disappointment, and I nearly tossed the thing aside 90 pages in.

Foul language and debauchery aside, the book can be dull. Miller’s writing, to me, is not conversational; its stream of conscious and I could feel my interest waxing and waning like the moon. At times it is frantic and erratic, Miller is scanning the world and options before him. But then he finds a focus, the mind quietens and becomes more lucid. Life unfolds and so to does some semblance of a story.

There is no plot, a luxury most people cannot afford. Instead we read about a struggling American writers life in 1920′s Paris. We survive with Miller, scraping by, living at times off the hospitality of friends. Sharing his stories and escapades, as well as those of his fellow expats, as they drink and sleep, mostly with ladies of the night. We follow their reading, writing, and other exploits in the art world.

Slowly I got lost in the story; tearing through the final 150pages in a single sitting, only to find myself disappointed once again. This time however it was because, though there were no pages left to read, I knew Miller’s life journey would continued and I wanted to hear about it from him.

The book is not for everyone. Some will take offense at the language; or the talk of prostitutes and their bodies will offend the sensibilities of many more. Others will succumb, as I almost did, to the rising tedium at times. However, those who persevere will be rewarded.

I loved the opening paragraphs, they really struck a chord with me:

“I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought I was an artist. I no longer think about it. I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.

This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty … what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse….

To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing. This then is a song. I am singing.”

And sing he does. It’s not a pop tune that will get stuck in your head, nor is it a foot tapping piece of rock history. Instead it’s a haunting ballad. You don’t really like it at first, but it grows on you. You learn to appreciate the slower pace, nodding your head, not to the beat, but the lyrics that ring true to your life and your appreciation for the story that unfolds.

If your a little intrigued, pickup a copy at your local bookstore, online from Amazon, or my favorite online bookstore – The Book Depository. It offers free shipping almost anywhere in the world and competitive prices (its 52 cents cheaper than Amazon for Tropic of Cancer). Book Depository delivers each book individually so it’s just as affordable to order a single book when the mood strikes unlike Amazon, where you bulk order to be eligible for free or cheaper shipping.

Happy reading,


  1. One Response to “Tropic of Cancer – Book Review”

  2. By Mackeran on Aug 9, 2009

    Really good review Bill. I look forward to more.

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