Tropic of Cancer
by Henry Miller
Social status is sort of a false distinction in this book because pretty much everyone is at the bottom rung. Pimps, prostitutes, beggars, misfits—you name it, they're in Tropic of Cancer. Now, Miller is pretty blatant as setting up America as the opposite of Paris in terms of its acceptance of a diverse variety of oddballs. So we can understand Paris and social status by looking at America as almost everything Miller rejects.
To Miller, America wants everyone to be the same—"in lockstep," as he calls it. Despite its claims, America is not democratic—only in Europe can one experience the sacredness of the individual and the bond of social community. America, according to Miller, is concerned with power and money, which is enjoyed by a select few.
Sex and Love
Where do we start? This book has a little love and a lot of sex. And we mean a lot.
Tropic of Cancer pretty much starts with a discussion of penises—whale penises and kangaroo penises, to be exact. And you don't make it five pages in without hearing Miller longing for Tania's "warm cunt" (1.19) and mentioning his "big prick" (1.19).
Miller would probably argue that he's not even the worst of the lot. He pretty disdainfully labels Van Norden as "cunt-struck." So is it a bad thing?
Most of the men in this novel are all kinds of ugly—and the women are even worse. We, for one, are not shocked. At one point Henry's maid, Elsa, says that the good looking women are the worst—"Elsa was giving me an earful about Berlin, about the women who look so attractive from behind, and when they turn round—wow, syphilis!" (2.7) So it's better to be ugly?
Not surprisingly, women get some of the nastiest descriptions, many of which just reduce them to their genitals. For example: Borowski's wife is "a dried up cow" (1.10), and we are left with no idea of what Mona looks like—only that she has a "warm cunt […] fat, heavy garters, [and…] soft, bulging thighs" (1.19).
The men aren't much better off, though. Think of Moldorf with his "thyroid eyes [and] Michelin lips" (1.23) or Borowski who has a different cane for each day of the week.
Yeah, no one gets off easy in Miller's eyes.