Mike's Reviews > Henderson the Rain King

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
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Jun 07, 2012

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Read from June 07 to 26, 2012

Because I'm pretty stupid, it actually took me a while to "get" this book.

At first - and this is part of what took me so long - was that the book's seriocomic nature confused me. Slapstick and parodies aside, I couldn’t discern what was or what was not to be taken seriously. Henderson is so strange that I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was a pathological liar and the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, and his metaphysical ramblings and moments of self-discovery are treated so seriously by him (and by many, many readers) – yet are so ridiculous and inconsistent – that I couldn't tell if I was meant to take these moments sincerely or take them as a series of punch-lines in the scathing satire that is Henderson’s journey toward his self. Henderson’s entitled to be oblivious to his own absurdity; he’s entitled to be annoyingly self-conscious about his own absurdity, too. But when he would say things like “the forgiveness of sin is perpetual” only to harbor vicious revenge fantasies for some political conspirators – or when he recalls Lily saying that the pursuit of sanity is symptomatic of a greater madness yet he more or less seeks this out on the other side of the world – or when he says “ideas make people untruthful…yes, they frequently lead them into lies” and then gets enmeshed in (view spoiler)…I oscillated between being convinced that the point was Henderson's folly, and being convinced that all of these little discoveries are meant to amount to something very significant. Even so, I wasn't quite satisfied with it as a fifty-six year old’s bildungsroman or an indictment of transcendentalism. As a man’s inconclusive bungling odyssey through Africa where he repeatedly gets worked up into a romantic passion, affixes himself to a particular idea, then sees it become poorly executed, I didn’t find it all that funny. While this makes more sense with the fact that he doesn’t learn much – he just gets caught up in a fanciful idea of love at the end, which will probably end in disastrous results – the book is too mired in sobering, metaphysical stream-of-consciousness slog to take as a dark comedy. I gave Bellow props for the scene wherein a group of natives throw Henderson face-first into a six-inch-deep puddle; that was actually laugh-out-loud hilarious. I'll also give him a round of applause for the English-speaking natives who tell Henderson that there's no untrodden African ground and it's all been discovered. It took me a while to sort of get that all the sobering, metaphysical stream-of-consciousness wasn't really supposed to add up enough to be satisfying or revelatory from a more serious perspective.

When I was still trying to wedge the puzzle pieces together, the only logical thread I can recall cohering was the thread of forgiveness: that the pursuit of being understood is really a plea for forgiveness in disguise, that the need to be understood is really a plea for forgiveness in disguise, and that the conflict of Being versus Becoming is really the conflict between self-acceptance and one’s inability to forgive oneself. This I find rather valuable, and actually quite applicable and helpful in day-to-day life. But this is sort of disregarded, along with many other theories, maxims, and potential morals: the actualization of the imagination, the act of “being” by roaring (which was really just fancy-pants primal scream therapy), liberating oneself from the cycle of fear and desire…I felt like all of these were introduced to either be tossed aside or contradicted, but didn't understand why. If fear allows for a higher imagination and imagination allows for greatness, doesn’t imagination also allow for the threat of unreality? To imagine threats? Doesn’t imagination also breed fear? How does Henderson take Dahfu’s seminar in lion-hood seriously after he realizes what a victim of political machination he’s become? It’s plainly clear from Dahfu’s first interview with Henderson, which is rife with suspicious questions and “sizing-up” job interview-type inquiry, what his intentions are…but does the regular reader know this? Wasn’t the seminar in lion-hood just an introduction to king-hood, a means to prepare Henderson for his transformation into a royal pawn? Why would such a thing merit lugging around a cub in the king’s memory? It’s serious and ludicrous. Henderson’s quest against falsehood leads him into a plot to which he is oblivious – “hot as oblivion” is a phrase he uses in the narrative, which sounds good but again is nonsensical and more lyrical than substantive – and he still “reaches for an object” even after his realization about Being v. Becoming. In the end he hangs his hat on love, which also doesn't seem consistent. Love is similarly entrenched in fear, in death, and in falsehood; oftentimes the object of our desires is often a projection of our imaginations, and “being” in love elicits “becoming” one with another. Judging by all that transpired, this does not seem a credible resolution. But it is accompanied with so many moments of unearned poetic fancy that I feel I must take it seriously. Or am I supposed to laugh that Henderson takes it seriously? I fail to see the uplifting side of the book's conclusion; either it’s a convoluted and malfunctioning revelation or it is a brutal way to express how little Henderson has changed, and that he’s still the doomed romanticist he was from page one. So, naturally, I was confused.

But after a little while of investing some time in my own brain I ultimately figured out what the deal was. The eureka moment came from flipping through it and seeing something about falsehood. Ah-ha. It's a deconstruction of the search for truth, and how it folds us nicely into a warm blanket of falsehood and delusion. Once I stopped searching for what I thought I should be looking for, the book revealed itself to me. How appropriate.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Mark Back when I was writing my undergrad thesis on Bellow, my advisor mentioned how some critics complain that his protagonists receive epiphanies and tranquility that they haven't earned. I'm a bit skeptical of this reading on the grounds that several of his novels end not with the protagonists' troubles disappearing, but rather the protagonists managing to stop worrying about their troubles for a minute and enjoy other aspects of life. Granted, Bellow's language tends to wax poetic and Romantic when he's wrapping up a novel. But when I stop and think about it for a minute, I'll start imagining the mess Henderson's going to encounter when he tries getting a lion cub through airport customs.

As you very astutely commented previously, this novel has had an influence on some of my own recent dabbling in fiction. Most notably (I think) in its attempt to render a totally fictitious but not totally outlandish foreign culture, and in its constant back-and-forth between comedy and seriousness. On the topic of its serio-comic nature, I like Philip Roth's assessment of Henderson as "a screwball book, but not without great screwball authority."

message 2: by Mike (last edited Jul 02, 2012 08:37PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Mike I agree that one should be skeptical of the 'unearned epiphanies,' if only because of the reasons you stated; one of the reasons the book was confusing to me was because the book's ending seemed deliberately irresolute (in principle). He is dancing about like a crazy person; he is breaking basic airline travel regulations; he believes the legacy of a sociopath shall pass on via a spirit animal, etc.

I'm being callous, yes, but that message when mixed with the waxing poetic meant for some reason that it all ramped up into a pretty fancy and strange tableau, and we get to fade to black on a "lovely" moment. It's as if the cheesy score in the background suggests an epiphany, but nothing anywhere else does so. Not even a little. It's a disconnect that serves as a decent approximation of my reading experience as a whole, actually.

As is often the case with Roth, I agree with what he says more often than I agree with how he says it.

Sorry it's taken me a while to get back. Busy times and workin' times, but hopefully a 4th of July rendezvous is in order!

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