In an upstate New York diner, a teenager high on “reefer” tries to shoot a pen from his friend’s hand, and ends up putting a hole in a coffee urn, sending a stream of hot coffee sailing toward the window. In the library of a decaying old mansion, a middle-aged man shakes open his father’s books and watches dollar bills rain to the ground. At a Canadian carnival, a boy and a mangy old bear cling together on a roller coaster, soaring and dipping. And in a remote African village, a massive, heartsick, inarticulate American prays for rain in a language he doesn’t understand—and the rain comes.
With a novel as full of surreal tableaux as Henderson the Rain King, that careens from continent to continent and from the ridiculous to the sublime, perhaps the best place to start is with a small oddity: Obersteiner’s allochiria. “I fought it until I came across the term Oberstein’s allochiria, and there I broke down,” says Eugene Henderson, the novel’s shambling pilgrim hero, as he tries to make his way through the recondite medical texts handed him by Dahfu, the King of the Wariri. “I thought, ‘Hell! What is it all about!’” The term sounds fantastic enough to be another of Saul Bellow’s inventions; but there really was a nineteenth-century Austrian neurologist named Heinrich Obersteiner, who diagnosed a rare syndrome in which the brain transposes sensations from the left and right sides of the body to the opposite sides.
The phenomenon appeals to Dahfu, and to the novelist who created him, because of the way it seems to upend the standard relation between mind and body. As good scientific rationalists, we have learned that the mind is the product of the body; where earlier generations spoke of the soul or spirit, we speak only of epiphenomena of the brain. In allochiria, however, we can glimpse for a moment the complementary truth that the body—the way we perceive and live in the body—is also a product of the mind. And if the mind is powerful enough to turn left to right and right to left, could it also be able to shape the body’s growth and form? Could the body be not just the vessel of the self, but the self’s faithful portrait? Dahfu is certain: “There are cheeks or whole faces of hope, feet of respect, hands of justice, brows of serenity, and so forth…The spirit of the person in a sense is the author of his body.”
“Why, King…that’s the worst news I ever heard,” responds Henderson. As well he might. For Bellow does not let us forget for a moment how bizarre he looks, how he combines strength and size with grotesque ferocity: “I was huge but helpless, formidable in looks, but of one piece like a totem pole, or a kind of human Galápagos turtle.” When Henderson and his …