Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Tuesday read: Saul Bellow/Henderson the Rain King

...which I've finally finished.

I just had to put one last plug in for Henderson. Well, one plug about him. He certainly takes you on an unusual jaunt through what the Penguin Classics back cover copy calls "a highly imaginary Africa" (perhaps fair, since the pineapple, so integral to Saul's native rituals, is, as you might intuit and according to Wikipedia, not widely found in the African desert). And though said back cover copy quotes the Chicago Tribune (nice sound bytes like "wildly delirious dream made real" and "rollicking prose" and "offbeat inventiveness of language") and The Daily Telegraph ("witty, clever, radiantly imaginitive") I have to notice here that no one unjustly promises me a plot.

I'm going to take this opportunity to promise you, oh faithful reader (yes, because there's only one of you, I know) that I never read back cover copy. Not that I don't want to ruin the book--although it almost invariably does. I just never think to read it.

But back to Mr. Henderson. At the risk of being labeled literarily conservative (nothing like being labeled your own invented term), I have mixed feelings about novels without plots. I am all about creative artistry and testing limits but I can't help but feel that a writer has some commitment to his (or her, Nicole Krauss!) audience.

When I came to the end of Henderson, the first words I heard from my overly verbal subconscious: what was the point? There were little points along the way, which is the redeeming feature of the book: all those little sparkly gems I was talking about before. But the last one that sparked my fancy came on page 258, so, given the lack of plot or definitive conclusion, I might have saved myself 90 pages or so.

But since the plots aren't what I remember about any of Bellow's books (my sole concrete memory of Ravelstein, which made me cry like an onion cutter, was that part of it might have taken place in France), I think it makes sense to leave you with some little sparkly consolation gems.

Odds are he was not the first to say it, but I love his being v. becoming. "Being people have all the breaks," Saul writes (160). "Becoming people are very unlucky, always in a tizzy. The Becoming people are always having to make explanations or offer justifications to the Being people. " I notice now that whoever owned this book before I bought it at the Strand must have liked this passage, too, since the page is dog-eared.

Also (nonsequitor): "She may have been a hot lay once, as she claims, though among great beauties that is rare" (126). Take that, great beauties!

And just one last one so as not to inundate you: "But why lions? Because, Mr. Henderson, I replied to myself, you don't know the meaning of true love if you think it can be deliberately selected" (258).

There. Much less workmanlike. Don't you think?

The next time I read something of Saul's I'll try to pick from the rather lengthy award-winning list. I do enjoy his writing, honestly, but maybe a plot would topple him over the edge.

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