The Tropic of Cancer, Wikipedia says, "also referred to as the Northern tropic, is the circle of latitude on the Earth that marks the most northerly position at which the Sun may appear directly overhead at its zenith. This event occurs once per year, at the time of the June solstice, when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun to its maximum extent."
The sun at its zenith, that is, in its full splendour, “tropic” being the word of reference here.
On the other hand, Henry Miller emphasizes the second word when he explains the title of his novel as follows: "It was because to me cancer symbolizes the disease of civilization, the endpoint of the wrong path, the necessity to change course radically, to start completely over from scratch.”
The phrase becomes thus slightly oxymoronic and can be read as a metaphor of Paris. Indeed, the City is the main character of this extraordinary book: Paris, shining like the sun at its zenith when it promises the grandeur to the young artist who enters it, but revealing itself as an incurable disease while the same artist actually begins to live in it.
Published in 1934 in Paris (where else?), the novel triggered a huge scandal because of its language and nonconformist approach to some taboo themes for that time, especially related to sex. Prohibited in USA and UK for many years (three decades!) because of the same old confusion between ethics and aesthetics that seems to lead to many interpretations of art works even nowadays, considered immoral and obscene, it is fortunate it did not become a book only to read about instead of a book to enjoy reading. Especially when, as Samuel Beckett once said, it is one of the greatest modernist writings in the universal literature.
And in a truly modernist way the novel begins, by considering Literature dead and its writer a forgotten, otiose God ("Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God."), to replace them with a spitting artist who scoffs at the old values without the ambition to create new ones ("This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty…"). A book without a narrative line, following the stream of consciousness of the narrator, who records his time in Paris with his bohemian friends, in order to capture - what? The condition of the Artist, always looking for something very "trivial", like food, shelter or sex? The contrast between living and creating? The mirage of the City? All of them and more, in order to stress the idea that life creeps into the creation, that there is nothing you have to remove from Art as non-artistic or prohibitive, not even the crap, the clap, the cunt, the syphilis, the whores and so on.
In a book destined to be "absolutely original, absolutely perfect," whose theme is the Artist and his Creation, there isn’t anything that cannot be told or have to be avoided. The Narrator himself is merely a man who struggles and makes many mistakes as a human being, who steals from a prostitute and deceives his friends, but he is also the Artist that observes the world and gives us a fair image of it.
It is not a coherent image in the beginning, but a puzzle whose pieces are thrown negligently towards the reader:
- Fulgurant visions of some characters, masterfully evoked in a few words, like Van Norden, suggestively characterized as "cunt-struck"; or Moldorf, compared with a "vase without a rubber plant" (note this: not any plant, a rubber one!); or Fanny, who laughs like a fat worm (how the heck do worms laugh? – like Fanny, of course!); or Claude that "had a soul and a conscience; she had refinement, too, which is bad – in a whore"; or Kepi who "has absolutely no ambition except to get a fuck every night"; or count Waldemar von Schwisseneinzug who has dandruff eyes (imagine this, if you can!).
- Ironic notes about food or the lack of it - there is a whole page where almost every word is a synonym or reminder of food (lunch, belly, eat, meal, chicken, plate, vegetable, etc.) to end with the upside-down image of the City as a huge organism eaten by disease.
- Description, in a tone that later will be equalled only by Bukowski, of the menial jobs the narrator has to get in order to survive: as a proof-reader, when the narrator realizes, ironically, that "It requires more concentration to detect a missing comma than to epitomize Nietzsche's philosophy. You can be brilliant sometimes, when you're drunk, but brilliance is out of place in the proofreading department. Dates, fractions, semicolons – these are the things that count"; as a fake journalist - pseudonymous writing in newspapers; as an English teacher, when he tries to spice the students’ classes with the subject of the coupling of the elephants.
- Tragi-comic scenes: Carl tries to seduce a rich old woman but he cannot stomach to have sex with her; the proof-reader Peckover is gravely hurt in an accident but he can only think about the loss of his false teeth; the narrator steals the hundred francs he had paid a Norwegian whore for services rendered; and the icing on the cake (yours to guess the scene behind the quote if you didn’t read the book): "Imagine these bloody no-accounts going home from the concert with blood on their dickies!"
Above all this there is the intriguing love-hate relationship between the narrator and the City, since Paris is viewed like a huge organism that traps, enchants, promises and deceives: a stage, an obstetrical instrument used for artificial birth, a place where everyone lives and no one dies; a heart palpitating after being removed from a warm body; an illusion of being at home; a paradise in the spring, a place for varieties of sexual provender; something that "grows inside you like a cancer"; a mad slaughterhouse, the navel of the world, more eternal than Rome or Nineveh; a whore that " from a distance (…) seems ravishing, you can't wait until you have her in your arms. And five minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. " Because "one can live without friends, as one can live without love, or even without money, that supposed sine qua non. One can live in Paris – I discovered that! – on just grief and anguish."
Of course, in such a desecrated world the Artist’s epiphanies are Miller-style: "When I look down into this fucked-out cunt of a whore I feel the whole world beneath me, a world tottering and crumbling, a world used up and polished like a leper's skull."