Andrew’s Brain, E.L. Doctorow’s 19th novel, a slim, mainly one-sided dialogue between a narrator and his “Doc”—or the monologue of an unreliable or unhinged narrator talking to himself—has some gorgeous writing.
Though plotless, the book shows that the 83-year-old author can still craft striking imagery and richly layered rhythmic sentences. But like many literary artists whose fame rests on signature style or subject matter, he can also pare down and imaginatively experiment. Those familiar with and admiring of Doctorow’s substantial historical fiction may be surprised and perhaps disappointed, or at least perplexed, by what Doctorow attempts in Andrew’s Brain, a 200-page episodic stream of consciousness that is primarily about consciousness, or mind, as distinct from the brain. A favorite word is “cephalic.”’ The word “thinking,” which appears in bracketed italics, also dots the narrative, interrupting Andrew’s ruminations or questions, which are never answered anyway. Reader expectations be damned, or maybe that’s the whole point.
The short-circuiting begins at sentence one with an engaging but, as it turns out, unresolved teaser: “I can tell you about my friend Andrew, the cognitive scientist. But it’s not pretty. One evening he appeared with an infant in his arms at the door of his ex-wife, Martha. Because Briony, his lovely young wife after Martha, had died.” The next paragraph is only one line, a question: “Of what?” The line after that (no quotation marks) does not clarify: “We’ll get to that. I can’t do this alone, Andrew said, as Martha stared at him from the open doorway.” The reader doesn’t learn how Briony died, however, until near the end. Nor is it apparent as the free-association narrative develops (11 chapters that grow increasingly short) that anyone other than Andrew is talking. If Andrew is not talking about himself in both the first and third persons, if indeed there is a Doc, it’s still not clear if Andrew has sought him out or has been confined to an institution by the CIA or White House henchmen Chaingang and Rumbum, an odd detour that moves the novel from personal to political. It seems that Andrew’s roommate at Yale was GWB (Bush per se is not mentioned) who gets Andrew to head up the Office of Neurological Research in the White House basement. For three weeks.
Of course, Doctorow, a pro, knows what he’s doing merging points of view and integrating fantasy and reality, as he explores Andrew’s thought processes, which tend to dilate on secondary details. Martha’s screaming (when she discovers that Andrew has unknowingly killed their baby girl by administering the wrong medicine—or is the pediatrician who is at fault?) is described as not human, more like the sound of a “huge forest animal with its leg caught in a steel trap, and maybe not even an animal of the present time, but something like its paleontological version.” But why not wander off, since the knowing brain can only pretend to know itself.
Though Andrew seems to have acquired the nickname The Pretender—his “gentle, kindly disposed, charming ineptitude is the modus operandi of the deadliest killers”—he seems more a klutz, an unintentional agent of disaster—suffering the loss of two children, two wives, his dachshund puppy, carried off by a hawk. He says he is unable to acknowledge guilt or failure, except in dreams. Or by writing in a diary, as Doc has suggested. It’s hard for the reader to get a fix on time and place, though the book’s climactic memory seems to be the fall of the twin towers in 2001. Andrew says he’s been a consultant in Washington, but his diary writing takes place “Down East,” and his entries are increasingly filled with references to and love for Mark Twain, especially in Twain’s depressive and cynical mode. Andrew will get to that, too, by and by, but only after a bizarre extended memory of his visit with young Briony to her parents, who are midgets (“diminutives”) with a background in show biz (Briony was Andrew’s student, a sylph-like gymnast 20 years his junior). Factor into this kaleidoscopic mix short disquisitions on, the philosopher John Searle, the German Romantic Heinrich von Kleist, Kant and the French existentialists. Not to mention Emerson or the Norwegian psychological neo-realist Knut Hamsun.
Confused? Of course, but then consider Doctorow’s wonderful prose—the fused image of foreground and background in the “bright fluorescent classroom with mountains watching through the window;” knockout descriptions so remarkable they stop the narrative—“Jonah riding the struts of the leviathan;” “a brueghel of people” at a beach. Also figure in complex gnomic phrases that vaguely suggest theme, such as “love is the blunt concussion that renders us insensible to despair.” There are also repeated mentions of Dingledom, but I haven’t figured these out yet. The least overtly political or historical of Doctorow’s fiction, and not an easy read, as they say, Andrew’s Brain is nonetheless a tribute to a master stylist if not, this time around, a master