The Short Version: Henry Miller details, in what was then quite shocking language, the life of a young ex-pat in Paris in the 30s. There’s a lot of sex, a lot of cursing, a lot of drinking, a lot of rambling thought, and a lot of hurry-up-and-wait.
NOTE: I’m hiding the rest of the review below a break as a courtesy to my bookclub. Will remove the break once they’ve all read it. Also, bound to be some foul language in this review: hard to discuss the book without it, to be honest.The Review: So here’s one of those books that you hear about. That sort of engrains itself in the popular consciousness even if you haven’t read it. It’s on all the “Great Books of the 20th Century” lists and has a certain mythic level of importance, what with all the hullabullo over it being banned in the States when first published, etc. And yet, as with so many so-called Great things, it doesn’t remotely live up to the hype.
Look, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the power of the raw language – especially to less-desensitized ears back in the 30s/40s/50s. The sheer impact of seeing the word “cunt” several hundred times – a word that still packs quite a wallop today – is absolutely not to be underestimated. It’s a powerful word – I remember having to say it in a play and having trouble saying it for the first time. But also… we live in the 21st Century. Reality TV barely bothers to bleep out curses anymore. People my age (myself included) are of the opinion that curses are simply another set of colors in the Crayola box of language and words are words are words. So 300ish pages of language that was considered obscene enough to be straight-up banned in the United States for nearly 30 years… it doesn’t quite pack the same punch.
But it’s not just that. If you will recall, I’ve read de Sade. Philosophy in the Boudoir made me blush. This book made me roll my eyes. The de Sade was racy and funny and evaded the trap that so many authors suffer from: writing bad sex. The Savage Detectives had good sex. This book does not. I mean, it’s a truth universally accepted that sex pretty much defies attempts to be explained in words… but if you do have to put it into words, it’s really better to let the reader do the heavy lifiting. Here, Miller goes the opposite direction: he tries too hard to describe the actual mental feeling of sex and as a result it’s just words on paper. And he looks like an idiot.
Really, all this book does is make Miller – an author who I understand to be widely respected – look like an absolute fucking idiot. The main character – a loosely fictionalized Miller, from what I gather – is a repellent human being, the sort of listless homeless artist who doesn’t seem to have any impetus to actually do anything at all other than drink and screw and call himself an artist. I’m no 1%er – I’d probably place myself juuuuuust above the “starving artist” rung and that’s on a good day. But there seems to be nothing redeeming, artistically, about the life Miller leads. The stories he tells are mostly boring, mostly pointless, and told in a rather annoying tone. He’s the original hipster – back when hipsters were annoying instead of what everyone secretly wants to be.
I see flashes of brilliance in the book, to be fair. Just when I had given up hope and resolved to put this book on the DNF list – which would’ve taken my grand total of unfinished books outside of the classroom to a whopping 5 – I was caught up in a rather delightful story about a Russian princess and Miller’s friend who was taken with her. It was well-written, it flowed smoothly, it was funny and raw and realistic. I suddenly saw the author everyone talks about, the man who inspired so many. It’s like a great short story plopped in the middle of otherwise rather listless and tiresome ramblings. Sadly, the book never returns to those heights – although I will say it retains some of the focus as it fades out, including a story about Miller going to teach English at a school in the country and his attempts to help Fillmore flee Paris. But mostly, I was just ready for it to be over. I didn’t care about anything and mostly I just wanted to punch Miller in the face for being an insufferable jackass.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5. It’s saved from the bottom of the barrel by the few scenes of lucid prose and smart writing… but even then, there’s nothing remotely worthwhile about this book from a 21st Century perspective. Maybe that says more about our society than the merits of the novel – I don’t rightly know. I can only review/react in one way… and that’s in annoyance. There’s a quote about halfway through where Miller writes that “you can get something out of a book, even a bad book… but a cunt, it’s just a sheer loss of time.” I’ve read some pretty terrible books and gotten something out of most of them – but Mr. Miller, you’ve tested that hypothesis pretty soundly with your own book. I’ll take a girl over a book like this any day. At least with the girl, you get something out of it. This was just a waste of my time.