Reality’s requirements get in the way in new Doctorow novel

Updated: 2014-02-02T16:21:30Z


Special to The Star

“Try to pay attention,” the narrator of E.L. Doctorow’s new novel admonishes. It’s sound advice for readers of “Andrew’s Brain,” a fragmented dialogue on the instabilities of memory and mind.

Fans of the American master might find his latest a departure from familiar ground. Doctorow’s previous books seemed to assemble a literary American history, spanning from “Ragtime’s” pre-World War I America to the Great Depression-era “World’s Fair,” for which he won the National Book Award.

“Andrew’s Brain” stretches that timeline into the present. Andrew, a cognitive scientist and fundamentally unreliable narrator, details a personal loss from the World Trade Center attacks and riffs on his former Yale roommate, George W. Bush.

The bulk of the novel is told as an extended dialogue between Andrew and an unnamed listener, presumably his therapist (Andrew hails him as both “Doc” and “Mr. Analyst”).

As a cognitive scientist, Andrew is preoccupied with the distinctions between the mind (his therapist’s realm) and the brain, a separation that Doctorow foregrounds in dissociative perspective shifts. Andrew often slips into third person while relaying stories from his life, pretending they happened to “my friend Andrew.”

We can hardly blame him for distancing himself from these events. Andrew seems to court disaster wherever he goes. In his youth, he sleds into the street and a driver is killed while swerving to avoid him. His child with his first wife dies after he feeds the child the wrong medicine.

Andrew can’t help but feel responsible, knowing his “kindly disposed, charming ineptitude is the modus operandi of the deadliest of killers.”

When he describes a hawk swooping down and plucking up his pet dog by the leash, however, we start to wonder if these disasters really occurred the way he’s recounting them — or if they occurred at all.

Andrew’s tales blur the lines between dream and reality: images from one anecdote are later used in a new tale, a sort of cognitive theme and variations. The therapist echoes our skepticism, interrupting many of Andrew’s reflections to point out conflicting timelines or confusing anecdotes. Are his memories manufactured? And, more crucially, does it matter?

Doctorow doesn’t offer clear answers, and readers less fond of experimental narratives may find the structure unsatisfying. If we consider a plot a logical series of cause-and-effect events, this book has none. Nor does it have scenes in the traditional sense: the narrative happenings are all recounted in summary, filtered through Andrew’s “endless mirrors of self-estrangement.”

But in sidestepping these conventions, Doctorow throws his narrator’s intellectual life into greater relief.

As a professor, Andrew lectures about consciousness in its purest form — unmoored from affectations, presumptions and corporal concerns. Doctorow seems, in those lectures, to be offering readers instructions on how to approach Andrew’s ruminations: as pure consciousness, unfiltered and unanchored in time or identity.

As we might expect from Doctorow, that consciousness is beautifully expressed, suffused with textured images and lyrical prose. The reading experience is no less pleasurable for its instability. Doctorow gives his narrator the air of a natural raconteur relaying a modern version of “The Odyssey,” complete with contemporary myths and monsters.

The epic breaks down a bit in the final third, when Doctorow steers the novel into the realm of absurdist comedy. Andrew’s grief-soaked 9/11 loss seems undermined by a subsequent stint playing pranks in the George W. Bush White House with “Chaingang and Rumbum.”

His therapist’s incredulity again mirrors our own: “Is this a movie?” he asks.

“This is America,” Andrew replies. Fair enough. If the novel is a national allegory, it might require a melting pot fusion of authentic tragedy and plasticky Hollywood farce.

Andrew’s Brain , for all its messiness, provides a magical and appropriately modern cap to a history of America forged in E.L. Doctorow’s fiction.

Liz Cook is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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