Monday, October 27, 2014

"Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated." The failure of Bellow's Henderson the Rain King

Is there any point in my listing the many flaws of Saul Bellow's 1959 comic philosophical novel Henderson the Rain King? No, there is not.

But Henderson the Rain King, apparently Bellow's favorite of his own novels, is a flawed book. Not flawed in the way that every great work of art has flaws, where technique has yet to catch up to inflamed, all-consuming vision; Henderson is flawed by weaknesses in basic craft. The book is structured as a traditional three-act story arc, with Act 1 ending as the hero has failed his first attempt at a Quest and rides off into the wilderness with his faithful servant. Act 2 dramatizes the continuation of the Quest in a new strange unknown land, with the addition of a Wise Helper character who discusses philosophy with the hero, and points him in the direction of Renewal and Hope. Act 3 is the sacrifice of the Wise Helper and the Coming Into His Own of the hero, with a sentimental denouement and happy ending. Yes, Henderson is that sort of novel, Don Quixote crossed with 19th-century adventure literature as filtered through the mind of one of those American male writers from the 1950s whose works I don't really get. That's a hint, that last phrase there.

The first act is mostly terrific, the language boiling and joking bigger than life, the humor quite sharp and aimed by the hero (Henderson) mostly at himself, as the reader can see that Henderson's barbs for his wives (ex and present) and children and everyone else are misdirected, the character flaws mostly belonging all to Henderson.
But if I am to make sense to you people and explain why I went to Africa I must face up to the facts. I might as well start with the money. I am rich. From my old man I inherited three million dollars after taxes, but I thought myself a bum and had my reasons, the main reason being that I behaved like a bum. But privately when things got very bad I often looked into books to see whether I could find some helpful words, and one day I read, “The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required.” This impressed me so deeply that I went around saying it to myself. But then I forgot which book it was. It was one of thousands left by my father, who had also written a number of them. And I searched through dozens of volumes but all that turned up was money, for my father had used currency for bookmarks—whatever he happened to have in his pockets—fives, tens, or twenties. Some of the discontinued bills of thirty years ago turned up, the big yellowbacks. For old times’ sake I was glad to see them and locking the library door to keep out the children I spent the afternoon on a ladder shaking out books and the money spun to the floor. But I never found that statement about forgiveness.
That is great stuff, on a lot of levels. The money falling out of his father's old books, which Henderson does not understand, is a brilliant image. There is a lot of brilliant imagery in the first act of Henderson the Rain King. The pages writhe with symbolism and shimmer with the energy of the prose. Then, when Henderson misguidedly blows up the water cistern at an African village, destroying the water supply and assuring the death of the village's cattle, Act 2 starts.

Act 2 is the long, long, interminably long, very quite long, too long middle of the novel. It's actually a fairly short novel, 330 pages or so in trade paperback, but it felt like an immensely long book while I was slogging my way through the pointless and clumsy story. Yes, I know, Nobel Prize and all of that. Don't get me started.

I'm not going to detail the failure of Act 2. Suffice it to say that the action is forced, not at all interesting, and is an excellent example of a writer taking the wrong path. Okay, hell, here's a sample of what I mean:
I wish to say at this place that the beauty of King Dahfu’s person prevailed with me as much as his words, if not more. His black skin shone as if with the moisture that gathers on plants when they reach their prime. His back was long and muscular. His high-rising lips were a strong red. Human perfections are short-lived, and we love them more than we should, maybe. But I couldn’t help it. The thing was involuntary. I felt a pang in my gums, where such things register themselves without my will and then I knew how I was affected by him.

"Yet you are right for the long run, and good exchanged for evil truly is the answer. I also subscribe, but it appears a long way off, for the human specie as a whole. Perhaps I am not the one to make a prediction, Sungo, but I think the noble will have its turn in the world."

I was swayed; I thrilled when I heard this. Christ! I would have given anything I had to hear another man say this to me. My heart was moved to such an extent that I felt my face stretch until it must have been as long as a city block. I was blazing with fever and mental excitement because of the loftiness of our conversation and I saw things not double or triple merely, but in countless outlines of wavering color, gold, red, green, umber, and so on, all flowing concentrically around each object. Sometimes Dahfu seemed to be three times his size, with the spectrum around him. Larger than life, he loomed over me and spoke with more than one voice. I gripped my legs through the green silk trousers of the Sungo and I am sure I must have been demented at that time. Slightly. I was really sent, and I mean it. The king treated me with classic African dignity, and this is one of the summits of human behavior. I don’t know where else people can be so dignified. Here, in the midst of darkness, in a small room in a hidden fold near the equator, in this same town where I had struggled along with the corpse on my back under the moon and the blue forests of heaven. Why, if a spider should get a stroke and suddenly begin to do a treatise on botany or something—a transfigured vermin, do you follow me? This is how I embraced the king’s words about nobility’s having its turn in the world.
Dahfu, king of a remote African tribe, is sitting with Henderson in a subterranean lion's den, lecturing on the possibility of man raising himself to a noble state by emulating noble animals, such as lions. The lion is, however, not a symbol for the sort of nobility that Dahfu thinks it is. That irony is clever, but alas the lion is not the symbol that Bellow thinks it is, either. And there is page after page of that "the king kept talking to me and I didn't know really what he was talking about, but it sure sounded smart and I felt swell while we chatted" stuff, about which I had no idea what to make, really. Is it comedy? Is Bellow really trying to talk about the nature of man? What what what? It went on and on and after a while it was merely something to endure with the hope of eventual freedom or at least some meaningful statements from the author.

I get the impression that Bellow thought his exotic and unrealistic Africa was so interesting, because so far from the experience of Americans, that it in itself could carry the bulk of the narrative. Unfortunately, the vagueness of what Bellow meant by all of this African action (it fails to work as comedy, as realism, as metaphor, as irony) leaves it just dull and in a lot of places clumsy, poorly-written filler.

What would've been more interesting would've been for Bellow to tell at length the story of Henderson at the carnival in his youth, and his relationship to the bear. The bear, briefly mentioned in Act 3, is the real hinge of the story arc, not the lion in the endless toiling drudgework of Act 2. The book ends with a scene of completely unearned emotion (as we say in the biz), but the images are quite pretty. Here's the final passage, which seals the cheating happy ending with a gorgeous kiss:
Laps and laps I galloped around the shining and riveted body of the plane, behind the fuel trucks. Dark faces were looking from within. The great beautiful propellers were still, all four of them. I guess I felt it was my turn now to move, and so went running—leaping, leaping, pounding, and tingling over the pure white lining of the gray Arctic silence.
the pure white lining of the gray Arctic silence is pretty good. But it was not worth the effort, alas, to get to that silence.


  1. I remember trying to read this years ago, and failing probably somewhere around the beginning of what you're calling Act 2. All I remember now is something about blowing up frogs. But I guess I must have found it too tedious, like Herzog, like Ravelstein, like everyone one of Bellow's books, except Augie March, which after a bit I quite enjoyed. - I read some of a biography of Bellow too once, in which he dismissed Augie March as overwritten youthfulness.

    1. I wasn't going to write about Henderson until I found your post about reading the final 50 pages of The Trial. I stood up from my chair and almost shouted, "Yes, this is just what it's like to be shackled to Bellow's damned novel!" So the subtext of this present post is that I'm angry at Bellow. I keep telling myself that I'll give him another chance. Could be I'm lying about that.