Henry visits his friend Van Norden, a fellow expatriate and, like all of Henry's other friends, he's obsessed with sex.
Van Norden is a tough man to get out of bed, but Henry manages.
Van Norden goes on a rant about how his teeth are rotting out of his head and how he thinks some woman he is interested in is a lesbian. He's also sick of married women and admits that he can't fall in love because he's too much of an egoist. (FYI: Van Norden and Henry do this cute little thing where they call each other "Joe," so don't get confused).
Van Norden takes Henry to a bar where he proceeds to point out and describe all the prostitutes he has slept with and what they like in bed. Helpful information. Then he starts to talk trash about their mutual friend Carl—calling him a selfish "little prick" (8.19).
Carl has been carrying on a six-month correspondence with a rich woman (he uses a different name for her) named Irene. When it's finally time to meet her, he freaks out: "It's one thing to write to a lady you don't know; it's another thing entirely to call on her and make love to her" (8.21).
Carl gets the nerve up to go see her, and then he calls Henry to let him know what happened. (Here, we finally see him called "Henry Miller." So our narrator is our author—fancy.)
Henry goes to Carl's the next day to get the low-down, but Carl's holding out. Finally, he unfolds the story in bits and pieces.
Turns out Irene wants to leave her husband and run away with Carl "to Borneo." But he's not having it. She has gray hair and skinny arms she is in her forties—too old for his taste.
Henry thinks Carl should just milk her for money, but Carl's too scared of the idea of having to make love to her on demand.
So Carl does the hard sell, trying to convince Henry to give her a try. But then he thinks he may be better off marrying her and then getting cholera or yellow fever. At least he'd be rich and could spend his days writing what he wants.
The next day Miller visits Van Norden, who's all bent out of shape that Carl has this new rich lady. Apparently Carl tormented him with the erotic details: "It's just like that guy," Van Norden says, "to tell me he put it to her six or seven times. I know that's a lot of shit and I don't mind that so much, but when he tells me that she hired a carriage and drove him out to the Bois and that they used the husband's fur coat for a blanket, that's too much" (8.71). We concur. TMI.
After his rant, the maid comes to pack up his stuff. He's being kicked out of his hotel room, and they put all of his things on the sidewalk.
He has to move to a new hotel, and this one's an even bigger dump than the last. Van Norden calls it "a bughouse" (8.86), but he is still able to see the romance in it: "In America […] you wouldn't dream of living in a joint like this. Even when I was a bum I slept in better rooms than this. But here it seems natural—it's like the books you read" (8.89).
Apparently Van Norden sees himself as a writer, But Henry is quick to point out that he doesn't really write anything and that he's all big talk about some book he's planning to write.
Van Norden thinks the book will be "absolutely original, absolutely perfect" (8.94)—which is precisely why he is incapable of writing it. It's just some grand idea he has.
Henry starts thinking about Van Norden's relationship to women. There's one woman he has a decent relationship with—they "understand each other" (8.94). Right. She also liked to watch him have sex while she hid in the closet. So yeah.
But she just refused to be another fling for Van Norden. That drove him nuts.
The two guys decide to go out for the evening, and they find themselves at the Coupole.
They run into a drunk who works at the same newspaper as Van Norden. This guy tells them that Peckover—another newspaper employee—fell down an elevator shaft and it's not looking good for the guy. All that's a bummer to the guy because apparently Peckover just got new false teeth. What a waste. He then relays the grisly details of the accident.
When the guy walks away, Henry and Van Norden start laughing hysterically. Peckover (what a name!) wasn't such a good proofreader and was basically a pathetic guy. The editors used to ride him over every mistake he made: "They made his life miserable with their fucking semicolons and the fractions which he always got wrong … He was just a nobody" (8.106).
Henry and Van Norden spend the evening out and watch the sun rise at the Dôme cafe. Van Norden is still thinking about sex and goes on a tirade about his "Georgia cunt," who he thinks is just too skinny—and he doesn't like that she shaves all of her hair off down "there."
They pick up a prostitute, who starts to haggle with them over money. She's hungry too, which makes Van Norden even angrier: "How the hell can you get up any passion when you've got a starving cunt on your hands?" (8.115). Whoa there.
Henry watches Van Norden have sex with her. There's no passion—they just look like a pair of goats and Van Norden looks like a machine. The whole scene is just pathetic: "[Van Norden's] like a hero come back from the war, a poor maimed bastard living out the reality of his dreams" (8.132).
Miller—not one to mourn—gets Peckover's job as proofreader at the newspaper.
The work is meaningless, but Miller likes it anyway—actually, precisely because it's meaninglessness. It's like being in a lunatic asylum "with permission to masturbate for the rest of your life" (8.125). The writing stinks, too, but Miller doesn't care—he's immune to everything.
No one understands why he is so content with the job, but the only worry he has is losing it.
Our guy embraces the degradation of the work. In America, everyone dreams of becoming president. In France, people just accept being losers. It's "A world without hope, but no despair" (8.133).
Henry's mind turns to Mona. He gets a letter from her every now and then. She always says she's coming to Paris soon, but she never does.
Memories of Mona begin to haunt him. He hasn't seen her for a long time and can't even remember what she looks like.
He eats a lot of meals at a bistro called Monsieur Paul's. Newsmen get meals on credit there—which is perfect for him since he has no money.
Some weird couple is always there, too, showing some serious displays of affection. And fighting in public. It's a real spectacle. Miller thinks the guy is a really pathetic old sack who probably just wants to bail on his girlfriend (Luciene) and go pick up some prostitutes at Rue du Faubourg Montmartre. This street sounds like a real den of appetites and desires: "A man who can walk through the Faubourg Montmartre at night without panting or sweating, without a prayer or curse on his lips, a man like that has no balls, and if he has, he ought to be castrated" (8.145).
Miller thinks about the shift between night and day, which he calls "an electric dawn." It's a moment when everything crawls back into its shell, "slowly dribbling back to the sewer. For about an hour there is a deathlike calm during which the vomit is mopped up […] The day is sneaking in like a leper…" (8.148). (If you have ever stayed up all night, you gotta love this description.)
He's rolling around Paris and stops into Café de l'Avenue, where he meets a pregnant woman. It's the first time he has ever been hit on by a pregnant woman.
While he's on the subject, he thinks Paris is an exceptional place for its weird sexual appetites: "As soon as a woman loses a front tooth or an eye she goes on the loose. In America she'd starve to death if she had nothing to recommend her but a mutilation" (8.151).
That afternoon, he finds himself at a Matisse exhibit, which draws him "back to the proper precincts of the human world" (8.153). To him, Matisse defies death and "expresses the miracle of breathing" (8.154).
Otherwise, all is death. A new ice age is coming "and the sun bleeds like a broken rectum" (8.155). This is some really apocalyptic stuff, so get yourself on a downer alert.