Miller goes to visit his friend Van Norden, who is holed up in his bedroom, complaining about this and that. He has a lover he refers to as his “Georgia cunt,” and it takes coaxing to even get him out of bed. “No matter what he does or where he goes things are out of joint,” Miller writes. He tells Miller about a “cunt” called Norma who gave him a hard time when he tried to have sex with her. “All I ask of life,” Van Norden says, “is a bunch of books, a bunch of dreams, and a bunch of cunt.” He takes Miller to a bar where he proceeds to point out and describe all the prostitutes with whom he has slept. There is hardly one in sight “he hasn’t fucked at one time or other.”
Van Norden asks Miller to do him a favor. He fancies a girl whose mother poses a certain problem. “I think the truth is,” Van Norden speculates, “the mother’s jealous.” He thinks the mother would not be such a hassle if Van Norden slept with her first, before he went for the daughter. So Van Norden wants Miller to sleep with the mother, satisfy her, so that Van Norden can take the daughter. “I don’t know how to get rid of the old hen,” he pleads.
Carl and Miller have been writing letters to Irene, a “rich cunt” who neither of them has met in person. Finally one day she calls on Carl. He is terrified – it’s one thing to write letters to this unknown woman, but it’s another thing to have to meet her and make love to her. He goes to the hotel while Miller waits for his call. When Carl phones, he doesn’t give any details, but pleads with Miller to fill in for him at work the next day. Miller does so, and winds up having to hold copy for Van Norden, who wants to know where Carl is. Miller explains that Carl “went to see his rich cunt.” Van Norden demands to be let in “on this racket.”
The next day Miller meets up with Carl, eager to hear all the details. Carl still seems a little nervous, a little frazzled, and Miller wonders why he isn’t more jubilant. Carl only offers bits and pieces of the story at first. Irene wanted to go to Borneo with him; she has a husband but doesn’t love him; she and Carl discussed traveling together. There’s a problem, however, which is the cause of Carl’s consternation. Irene is in her forties, with a streak of grey hair over her forehead. That is much too old for Carl, who has arranged to meet her again next Tuesday and is terrified of doing so. She’ll probably want to have sex, he figures. He wants out. Miller jumps in, offering to take Carl’s place, to be Irene’s lover instead. This comforts Carl, who says, “Maybe I’ll fuck her once in a while too.”
The following day Miller goes to see Van Norden, who has been told the story and isn’t sure whether to believe it or not. He seems depressed; what eats away at him is the idea that what Carl told him might have actually happened. He’s bitter: “Listen,” he says, “I suppose he told you everything...did he tell you how he stood on the balcony in the moonlight and kissed her? That sounds banal when you repeat it, but the way that guy describes it...I can just see the little prick standing there with the woman in his arms and already he’s writing another letter to her, another flowerpot about the roof tops and all that crap he steals from his French authors.” He goes on and on, railing about the sexual details Carl gave him, the images planted in his mind – Carl performing oral sex on the woman, for example.
Miller helps Van Norden move out of his place and into a new hotel room. “In America,” Van Norden says, “you wouldn’t dream of living in a joint like this. Even when I was on the bum I slept in better rooms than this.” Still, he tries to reassure himself, and mentions that Maupassant used to live in this same hotel.
“People think I’m a cunt-chaser,” Van Norden complains, still wallowing in despair. “That’s how shallow they are, these high brows who sit on the terrasse all day chewing the psychological cud… […] I wish to Christ I could get up enough nerve to visit an analyst.” He speaks of the book he is planning to write, which makes Miller smile. We learn that for a long time now Van Norden has been referring to this book of his, a book he never seems able to sit down and write. He reads and reads, and the more he reads the more disdainful he becomes, holding forth the possibility of absolute perfection for the book he fancies himself writing. “And forgetting completely that he has not written as much as a chapter he talks about [other books] condescendingly, quite as though there existed a shelf of books bearing his name, books which everyone is familiar with and the titles of which it is therefore superfluous to mention.” As Miller and Van Norden walk to a restaurant near the hotel, Miller thinks of Bessie, a woman Van Norden “has been trying to make for almost ten years now” – a woman who understood him, who alone seemed to represent something of a solution for him.
Van Norden and Miller find themselves at the Coupole. They stumble into a drunk who works at the same newspaper as Van Norden, and learn from him that Peckover – another newspaper employee – fell down an elevator shaft just recently. He’s not expected to live. “The poor bastard,” Van Norden says, “he’s better off dead than alive.” It turns out that Peckover had just gotten a set of false teeth the other day, and that after he fell down the shaft he regained consciousness and groped around for his teeth, despite his legs and ribs being broken. The drunkard relating the story breaks down in tears. Miller is a bit irritated. He writes that “[Van Norden] and I, who knew Peckover well and who knew also that he wasn’t worth a good goddamn, even a few tears, we felt annoyed by this drunken sentimentality.”
Around dawn, Van Norden and Miller are sitting on the terrasse of the Dome. Van Norden’s “mind has slipped back to the eternal preoccupation: cunt.” He talks about “his Georgia cunt” and how she once shaved off all her pubic hair. Van Norden was repulsed but fascinated by this, and inspected it with a flashlight for a solid ten minutes. He concludes that men give the female anatomy an individuality that it simply does not have. “You get all burned up about nothing,” he argues, “about a crack with hair on it, or without hair […] All that mystery about sex and then you discover that it’s nothing – just a blank.”
While delivering his soliloquy on the “cunt,” Van Norden notices a prostitute giving him and Miller the eye. He suggests they “give her a tumble.” They have little money to spare, and Miller describes the whole ordeal as cold and mechanical. “We haven’t any passion either of us,” he writes. When watching Van Norden try to have sex with the girl, he imagines he is “looking at a machine whose cogs have slipped.” Van Norden can’t get himself inside the girl, try as he might, grunting and sweating.
The days pass. Miller lands Peckover’s job. He’s now a proofreader at the newspaper. The work – utterly tedious, without ambition – doesn’t bother him in the least. “None of my companions seem to understand why I appear so contented,” he writes. “They grumble all the time, they have ambitions, they want to show their pride and spleen. A good proofreader has no ambitions, no pride, no spleen. A good proofreader is a little like God Almighty, he’s in the world but not of it.”
Miller writes that he is “immune” as a proofreader. While those surrounding him are bitter about their jobs, striving to prove themselves in a greater way, he lives only in the now, and is therefore perfectly satisfied. It is interesting to note the differences between Miller’s description of work at the newspaper and his famously hellish account of life in the “Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America” in Tropic of Capricorn. The tone in Capricorn is angrier, more vindictive, filled with spite and invective. By the time of Cancer’s narrative, when Miller is older, more developed as a writer, and surer of his own self-worth and his own identity, he is able to separate himself entirely from whatever pride or ambition he may have. The tone is far more upbeat - more bemused than indignant.
Perhaps Miller's sense of contentment has to do with his job’s fixation on language. Words are all-important for Miller – he disagrees with Carl’s complaints of there being too many books in the world and laughs at Van Norden’s inability to write his own – and now, for once, he has a job that is intimately focused on them. While suggesting the meaninglessness of the work, he also communicates the perverse enjoyment he derives from it: “When the world blows up and the final edition has gone to press the proofreaders will quietly gather up all commas, semicolons, hyphens, asterisks, brackets, parentheses, periods, exclamation marks, etc. and put them in a little box over the editorial chair. Comme ca tout est regle...” The final sentence of that passage means: “In that way everything is put in order.” What Miller seems to enjoy is the separation from the outside world that his job requires. He has spent weeks and months being blown by the wind, floating down Parisian boulevards, but now his world is comprised of commas and semicolons – the near-mathematical fixtures of language. He resides solely between the lines of a proof, and though the world may explode, he will remain immune.
“This life which, if I were still a man with pride, honor, ambition and so forth, would seem like the bottom rung of degradation, I welcome now, as an invalid welcomes death,” Miller writes. What is most significant about this passage is the way in which Miller inverts signals of despair or depression into a sort of would-be jubilation. “Degradation” means freedom, for him, just as do scuffling between tawdry hotel rooms and mooching for change. If another writer were to write that he “welcomes death,” a reader might read into that line a deeply pessimistic view of life; Miller, on the other hand, is writing of the liberation that follows from shucking off attachments, separating oneself from hopes for the future. He is extending his inquiry into the now to cut off ties to the future; thus, a job without hope, stuck ruthlessly in the present, is ideal.
It is also interesting to note Carl’s terror at the prospect of living with Irene, for that sense of disillusionment mirrors Miller’s own view of time. The Irene of the letters - the faceless Irene who exists only in writing - is full of mystery and wonder; the real Irene is old, gray-haired, too eager to have sex. Carl struggles to reconcile his daydream visions of the “rich cunt” with the reality before his eyes; now that the pursuit is over, he is overwhelmed by the idea of a future with the woman. The letters hang suspended in time; they exist only in the here and now. Once the great future rears its head, anxiety sets in. How to imagine all the days ahead with this woman?
The future is frightening and constricting; the past is irrelevant. Only the present offers comfort. American-style ambition has no appeal for Miller. “Over there you think of nothing but becoming President of the United States some day,” he writes. “Here [in Paris], it’s different. Here every man is potentially a zero. If you become something or somebody it is an accident, a miracle.” The accidental suits Miller; planning for the future does not. One should write one’s own life-story in the present tense.