This, Henry Miller’s first novel, is about a young man living a bohemian life in Paris in the late 1920’s. It reads autobiographically. It’s often said that literary fiction downplays story in favor of character development. This isn’t necessarily true today, but it seems to be the case with this 1934 novel. There’s not much story—though a little one is packed in at the very end. The book does illuminate the lead character, but the reaction that character evokes is neither love nor hate but more of an “ewww” of disgust. Put another way, he’s like a Chuck Palahniuk anti-hero (e.g. think of Victor from “Choke”), but without out the quirky humor to make him amusing and interesting. This will make more sense in the next paragraph.
This book is often classified as erotica, but many readers might not find it to be erotic. Like a shock-jock, Miller chooses the most vulgar term to stun rather than using descriptive language to arouse. The lead (and other characters) spends a lot of time in bed with prostitutes, but at the same time he’s sleeping on the couch of some acquaintance or grumbling that he can’t afford a sandwich. Lest one think I’m hammering the book because of gratuitous sex, let me say that it’s not the sex that I find dismaying but a guy whose priorities are so askew of Maslow’s hierarchy as to make one wonder if he’s of the same species. There’s an uncanny valley with this character, only not with respect to facial appearance. All of that would be fine if the character experienced change over the course of the book, but the character neither grows nor is destroyed. I should also point out that I like Palahniuk’s anti-hero stories, but Miller takes himself too seriously to be fun, and I think that fun is the only way such a character makes for appealing reading.
So far I’ve made this book sound horrible, but I didn’t savage it with a sour rating. Ergo, there must be some redeeming value. There is. Miller’s use of language is intermittently gorgeous. He gets in these streams of consciousness in which poetry infuses into his prose. During these times, the story—such as it is—disappears even further into the hinterland, but the words can spark. Maybe Miller should’ve forgotten the hype that the novel is the ultimate literary art form and devoted his efforts to poetry.
I offer a qualified recommendation of the book. If you’re a reader of erotica and heard that this was a classic of that genre, then pursue it with caution. However, if you love words artfully twisted into little flashes of light, maybe you should check it out.
It goes without saying that there’s graphic content, but there are other reasons readers might be sensitive to this book. Not that I encourage avoiding a book because a character makes one feel ill-at-ease. (On the contrary, I frequently encourage it.) If a lead who comes off as simultaneously lusting after and despising women is a trigger for you, be forewarned this is such a character. (Note: He may also be anti-semitic, racist, and homophobic as well, but those elements aren’t explored in great detail. It could well be that the character doesn’t like humans in general. Maybe he was supposed to be a robot after all [hence the uncanny valley] and in that case I recant this review.)