Book Review: Plexus by Henry Miller

“Plexus” is the second book of Miller’s “The Rosy Crucifixion”, a trilogy which is comprised of “Sexus”, “Plexus”, and “Nexus”.  A few years ago, when I decided to re-read some of Henry Miller’s works, I started with “Tropic of Cancer”, his first and by far his best book, one that burst upon my consciousness like a beacon back in the days when I wandered about lost and confused, having no idea of how to come to terms with the wonderful idea of being a writer.  And here it was, so simple and direct, like a mortar shell in the living room:  live life and write about it.  That’s all there was to it.  Such a simple formula.  My naiveté was so great that at the time exactly what that meant didn’t sink in.  The depths of depravity to which Miller was exposed as he came out into the literary light are detailed in the book, but the prose is so magical that I was oblivious to it.  I didn’t grasp that it meant you had to go to hell and then describe in minute detail what the experience was like, even though the words were right there in front of me.  Henry Miller minces no words when it comes to describing hell, and the obliteration and rebirth of the self, or rather I should say the obliteration of the old self and birth of a new.  Paris, for him, was the place at which he hit rock bottom.  For me it was India, and I describe it in my book “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search”.

But I was talking about re-reading Miller.  Next I re-read “Tropic of Capricorn”, a wild roller coaster ride of a book that delves into his roots, especially his days as a personnel manager for a large telegram company.  Another of the levels of hell, but even more hellish because he is completely lost in the chaos, thrown about by every wind of circumstance.  It’s a crazy symphony of a book, if symphonies can be insanely discordant and possessed of their own erratic rhythm of death and decay.  Then I re-read “Black Spring”, which is a mixed bag of short pieces; I liked some and disliked others upon reappraisal.

For this discussion I discount his nonfiction books of travel and reflection upon particular places such as “The Colossus of Maroussi” and “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch”.  Though they are among my favorites of his works, they are completely different in tone, not written ostensibly as novels as the other books are, but as out-and-out memoirs.

From “Black Spring” I moved on to “Sexus”.  The title gives this one away.  Each of the volumes of “The Rosy Crucifixion” are thick, heavy tomes, and this one is full of graphic descriptions of sexual escapades during his early days in New York, one after another, some of them uproariously funny.  It doesn’t rise to the level of literary excellence of “Tropic of Cancer” or “Tropic of Capricorn”, but I enjoyed it so much I ordered a copy of the next volume, “Plexus”.

In “The Rosy Crucifixion” Miller attempts to chronicle the years in New York leading up to his departure to Europe and his profound change of life and of soul, of the finding of his voice as a writer.  It’s got a wealth of characters, details, and minutia.  And herein lies the problem.  Miller obviously wanted to include everything, leave nothing out, and it’s a case of too much, one thing piled upon another until he commits the one sin of which writers should never be guilty:  in some places it is boring.

Don’t get me wrong.  “Plexus” is full of great passages.  There’s almost none of the graphic sexuality of the previous volume; it’s one that you can leave out in sight for the perusal of the kiddies.  The part at the beginning where he talks about trying to find himself as a writer but not knowing how to proceed, what to do, what to write about, is one that many aspiring writers can relate to,  and there are some very funny stories of his down-and-out times as he and his wife drift from one apartment to another, open a speakeasy, even hitchhike on the road to South Carolina.  But there are other sections in which Miller goes on and on, page after page, describing night dreams or daydreams which in the end have no point.  The book could have benefited from some serious editing; the excising of the slow parts would have made the rest of it a delicious romp through the trials and tribulations of a writer-to-be.  As it is, surprisingly even to myself, I got fed up and almost put it down.  I persevered because I always hate not to finish a book I start, even if I have read it before, and I was glad I saw it through because brilliance is scattered throughout, and I would have missed some of the best bits if I had not read it to the end.

The curious thing is that though I bought “Plexus” right after I finished “Sexus” it was years before I got around to re-reading it.  I’m always looking ahead when it comes to books.  It has to be the right time for something.  I know that I am so impressionable that what I am reading affects my daily life and what I am writing.  I figured the time was finally right, and I suppose it was.  It showed me one thing I hadn’t realized before:  as writers we eventually outgrow our mentors.  By that I don’t necessarily mean that we become better than they are.  We simply expand our horizons, go our own ways, so that we don’t have to swallow everything another writer says or does complete and whole without any kind of discernment or screening process, as we might do at the beginning when we are in the first thralls of literary love.  We can eventually pick and choose according to our own dictates, according to what our muse reveals to us personally.  When I first read “The Rosy Crucifixion”, therefore, I was utterly entranced, utterly enthralled at what Miller was doing, the pouring out of his life in a great overwhelming flood of words.  Observing and understanding what he was doing helped me learn to pour forth, to find my own voice as a writer.  But times change.  I found my voice long ago, and I can pick and choose now, be more discerning, more selective.  Even back then, the first time I read it, I realized that “The Rosy Crucifixion” was too rambling and did not rise up to the brilliance of the “Tropic” books; nevertheless I have to say that it is worth reading, especially for new writers just starting out, to get a feel for what it’s like to be able to convert a confusion of experience, in retrospect, into a rambunctious tale of coming-of-age.

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