Books: January 2012

by macksemil



 “The art of dreaming when wide awake will be in the power of every man one day. Long before that books will cease to exist, for when men are wide awake and dreaming their powers of communication (with one another and with the spirit that moves all men) will be so enhanced as to make writing seem like the harsh and raucous squawks of an idiot.” – Henry Miller, Sexus (pg. 20)

Sexus is the first book in the “Rosy Crucifixion” trilogy by Henry Miller. I recieved this book as a gift from my mother for my birthday last year. Miller is one of my absolute favorites – the way he draws soaring philosophical inspirations out of the seemingly mundane makes him a unique pleasure to read. Other favorites from Miller are The Air Conditioned NightmareThe Colossus of Moroussi, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, A Devil in Paradise, and of course Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer. I’ve never been let down by Miller – all of his works exemplify his charm and talent. Sexus is no exception.

An overriding theme of this book, as one may guess from the title, is sex. Henry screws his way through New York City. His wife, his mistresses, his friends, his friends’ wives, his friends’ mistresses, acquaintances and strangers alike are all recipients of Miller’s affections. During Sexus, Miller is struggling to create his identity as a writer. He’s fighting his way through a lowly existence of working a desk job he hates at what he nicknames the “Cosmococcic Telegraph Company”  or “Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company.” The popular speculation is that Miller actually worked for Western Union. (The word cosmococcic appears to be conied by Miller, I haven’t been able to find a definition anywhere on the vast interweb.) He’s fallen out of love with his wife Maude and taken a fancy to a seductive but evasive dance hall girl named Mona, a character who represents Miller’s second wife, June. 

Miller is dumbstruck by his obsession for Mona as he tries to sort out his direction in life. As with all Miller’s books, there is an eccentric and endlessly entertaining cast of characters which accompany him along his path of drunken, sexually charged fumblings. This is one of my favorite things about Miller, he is in love with people and writes about them with a passioned fervor. His incessant begging for then squandering of money is amusing, as he exhausts the patience of most of his contacts trying to win Mona’s love. The writing is superb, it lures one in with hilarity and delightfully over-the-top descriptions of sexual escapades then dissolves your chuckling smile into a jaw-dropping silence as he telescopes out to philosophic commentary on the existential. As always, Miller is endlessly quotable.

Miller see saws between dreamily stargazing and nervous breakdown while his world falls in fragments around his feet, talking us through his journey to shed his skin as an ordinary desk worker and grow into the infinetly more unique Miller that we today have the pleasure of enjoying through his later works. I wouldn’t rate Sexus as being in the top eschelon with some of his other books, but if you are already a fan it’s an insightful journey into Miller’s early career and still holds every bit of the charmed lyricism and honest disclosure that has made Miller a cornerstone of 20th century American literature.  



They’d lied to me and betrayed me, leaving jagged edges where all my trust had been, and I didn’t like or respect or admire them any more, but still I loved them. I had no choice. I understood that, perfectly, standing in the white wilderness of snow. You can’t kill love. You can’t even kill it with hate. You can kill in-love, and loving, and even loveliness. You can kill them all, or numb them into dense, leaden regret, but you can’t kill love itself. Love is the passionate search for a truth other than your own; and once you feel it, honestly and completely, love is forever. Every act of love, every moment of the heart reaching out, is a part of the universal good: it’s a part of God, or what we call God, and it can never die.” – Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram (pg. 740)

I had been looking for this book for about a year before I finally found it. Shantaram has enjoyed a good amount of popularity and most of the used book stores I visited told me I would have to buy it new since hardly anyone sold the book back. Being almost entirely unwilling to pay more than ten or twelve bucks for a book I was forced to wait, until I saw the title on sale at the Book Bin in Salem, OR for 11 dollars. Finally I could read the book that I’d heard so much about. Of course, having that much buildup for a read sets dangerously high expectations – in the end Shantaram lived up to them.

Gregory David Roberts was at one time Australia’s most wanted man after a string of armed robberies that gave him the nickname “The Gentleman Bandit” since he always said please and thank you to his victims, wearing a three piece suit. Roberts robbed banks to support his heroin habit which he had developed since his family life fell apart and he lost custody of his daughter. He was eventually captured and sentenced to 19 years in prison. Roberts served a portion of the sentence before escaping over the front wall of the prison in broad daylight in 1980. On the run from authorities he managed to flee to Bombay, where the novel starts as he first ventures into the city.

What follows is a mix between retellings of real life events and fiction as Roberts (known in the story mainly as Lin, but also as Shantaram) begins a new life in the sprawling city. The affection that Roberts has for the city of Bombay is a major theme of the novel, with many clorful descriptions of Bombay and its inhabitants to enjoy. Roberts has a gift with people, and his many friends from all over the world are fascinating to read about. We follow Lin through many enlightenments and adventures; a life in the slums running a first aid clinic, a six month stay in a rural village, climbing the ranks within one of Bombay’s most powerful organized crime rings, an extended and arduous trek into Afghanistan to smuggle weapons to rebel militias, an ill-fated love affair with a beautiful Swiss-American expatriot named Karla and a tense, hopeless, lice-ridden term in a Bombay prison.

The story has many interesting twists and turns as Lin’s extensive social network suffers a myriad of losses throughout the tumultuous years. The characters each offer their philosophic musings on life, love and the city of Bombay. The depth of suffering that Lin goes through and the realizations that are born from it serve to convince the reader that Roberts himself has learned his lessons the hard way. The honest and warm voice flows naturally throughout the book, guiding the reader through pathways of discovery, love and loss on the back streets of Bombay.

The novel isn’t a groundbreaking piece of literature or an acute social commentary, but it is a fascinating story rich with anectodes and insights from a writer who has a vast reservoir from which to draw. There is talk of a second book from Roberts, called The Mountain Shadow, a sequel to Shantaram and part of a quartet of which Shantaram is the second book. According to Wikipedia, Roberts has also said that he is finishing a screenplay for a film adaptation this month.