E.L. Doctorow’s latest novel, “Andrew’s Brain,’’ begins a step from cliché, with a man carrying an infant to a door in the snow. The man is the titular Andrew, the child his own with recently diseased second wife Briony, and the doorstep that of his ex-wife Martha. Of course, he leaves the baby there.
The opening is the first of many things in “Andrew’s Brain’’ that may lead one to wonder just what a writer as practiced as Doctorow thinks he’s doing, exactly (one might also cite the performing midgets and two Bush cronies called “Chaingang” and “Rumbum”).
Certainly, the book represents a bit of a departure for the author of “Ragtime’’ and “The March’’ — larger scale, historical works with populous casts — and yet this on its own shouldn’t trouble anyone. Instead, it would seem, what makes this slim novel so difficult to grasp has something to do, precisely, with Andrew’s brain.
The novel consists entirely of a conversation — though monologue is generally closer to the mark — between Andrew, a cognitive neuroscientist, and what may be his psychiatrist (someone referred to, at least, as “Doc” when referred to at all). The exchange takes place in some undisclosed location for an undisclosed reason, which may or may not be punitive in nature. At one point, Andrew takes a vacation on a fjord, continuing the “talking cure” in letters.
Among his apparent pathologies, Andrew has — or thinks he has — a tendency to cause others inadvertent harm, moving about like Joe Btfsplk, the “world’s worst jinx,” and feeling very little about it too.
By the time we meet him his dachshund has been picked off by a hawk, his baby has died, his first marriage is over, he’s fallen for the ill-fated Briony, given away their child, and been hired and fired by his old college roommate, one George W. Bush, before being shipped off to wherever he is now. Along the way we hit certain historical markers: 9/11, the Bush years, and artificial intelligence among them.
As Andrew tells his story — nonlinearly, in a mixture of wild expostulation and mournful admission — he shares his own neurological beliefs. (The text is studded with parenthetical stage directions — “[thinking]” — which seem a bit ham-handed.)
Andrew doubts, for instance, that the brain can know itself at all.
“We have to be wary of our brains,” he says. “They make our decisions before we make them. They lead us to still waters. They renounceth free will . . . But don’t think about these things, because it won’t be you anyway doing the thinking.” In fact, in his grief after losing Briony, he’s found solace in a belief in the “hive mind,” that consciousness apparent in ants and bees in which the individual is subsumed by the group.
Perhaps Doctorow is attempting to say something about psychic trauma and collective delusion after 9/11, but he doesn’t quite it pull off. Andrew’s nickname is “the Pretender,” and he goes on to claim that “[p]retending is the brain’s work. It’s what it does. The brain can even pretend not to be itself.”
Compare this to his definition, earlier in the novel, of consciousness: “You are not in a place, you are the place . . . . There is nothing you can think of except of yourself thinking. You are in the depthless dingledom of your own soul.”
The two, taken together, more-or-less sum up Andrew’s situation, which is, to say the least, uncertain. Referring to himself in both the first- and third-person, he’s such an unreliable narrator that it’s difficult to tell whether the novel’s more outrageous elements are delusions or Doctorow’s pulling of our collective leg, or both.
The trouble is, Andrew may not really exist. He may have some dissociative disorder. He may be a computer. Which is all very well, but if the “thinking” cannot be trusted, and there is no why, how, or even who about it, then what are we doing here? And indeed, why bother at all? The experiment may be interesting, but the novel becomes little more than an amusing goose chase.
Of course, there is a great deal of fine writing here: the “creature-like snowflakes,” a “brueghel of people,” those “mulping calves.”
Andrew’s peculiar diction is informed by his near-obsession with Mark Twain (whose own word games are evoked in the novel’s ending), and Doctorow skillfully modulates the pitches and shifts in his narrator’s mood. It makes one regret that he’s trapped himself inside such a goofy premise — a brain that, in the end, signifies little at all.