Even after the close of the twentieth century, Tropic of Cancer still has the power to startle and overwhelm a reader. Its wild, violent language, its immense force, its radiant paeans to the historic beauty of Paris, and its unsettling descriptions of a society in an advanced state of decomposition reflect a bottom dog’s sense of the world that is still relevant and disturbing.
Even the fairly explicit sexual passages retain the power to shock and disturb, not because of their pornographic content but because they show the psychotic self-absorption of people ruined by social stratification and personal egocentricity. Miller wrote the book as a declaration of his own survival after a wrenching psychic experience, and his exuberant embrace of nearly every aspect of existence is a reflection of his discovery that he had found a voice and a form appropriate to the ideas and ambitions he had been harboring for his entire adult life. Before the book was published, Nin read the manuscript and accurately described the protagonist as “the mould-breaker . . . the revolutionist,” and the revolution Miller was proclaiming was part of the modernist enterprise of challenging conventional but no longer viable authority.
One aspect of this challenge was the form of the book itself. It was begun originally as a kind of journal called “Paris and Me,” and Miller eventually divided the book into fifteen sections. It has little character development, however, beyond the narrator’s personal journey, a discontinuous sense of chronology, no plot in any familiar sense, no real dramatic events, and no conclusion. Instead, the narrative drifts and drives from “the fall of my second year in Paris” (in 1929) and continues in rhythmic lurches to the spring of 1931, but time is elastic. Days and months have no particular meaning, as the narrator has no regular job or any other...
(The entire section is 777 words.)