Cut the music. E.L. Doctorow’s new novel is no “Ragtime.” The author who once orchestrated grand plots involving Houdini, Freud, J.P. Morgan and a host of other real-life luminaries is now working in a cramped, dark cell. Instead of the breathtaking sweep of Sherman’s “March” through Georgia and the Carolinas, “Andrew’s Brain” leaves us trapped in the airless monologue of one hapless man. Fans of Doctorow’s award-winning historical novels will find this slim book especially puzzling. But that’s clearly intentional.
The whole story comes to us as the rambling testimony of a depressed scientist being patiently interviewed, possibly by a government psychiatrist. Andrew flits around the events that led him here — wherever here is: Early in the book he says, “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” which makes two of us. He sometimes speaks of himself in the third person; he regularly mocks his unnamed interrogator; and he pays no attention to chronology. It’s our job to put the tragic incidents of his life in order, to unscramble the taunting clues, to unearth the profundities buried in this misanthropic rumination.
“Andrew’s Brain” hurt mine. The problem isn’t that the novel requires a significant degree of intellectual effort; it’s that it doesn’t provide sufficient reward for that effort.
Alternately dejected and self-aggrandizing, Andrew describes a litany of personal failures and bizarre accidents: He drops glasses, breaks a friend’s jaw, poisons a child, diverts a stranger’s car into a pole, lets his dog get eaten alive — the list rolls on and on. “Andrew, stop,” his psychiatrist pleads. He’s a walking disaster, a human bad-luck charm.
A particularly frank acquaintance tells him, “Well-meaning, gentle, kindly disposed, charming ineptitude is the modus operandi of the deadliest of killers.” In fact, it’s fear of what calamity he might cause next that inspires Andrew to drop off a baby with his ex-wife — a desperate plan to save the child. “I had reached the point,” he says, “where I felt anything I did would bring harm to anyone I loved.”
To Andrew’s rising annoyance, the psychiatrist keeps asking, “Did this really happen?” or “So this was not a dream?” But the questionable events are usually this novel’s finest parts and certainly its most compelling. His ruined first marriage, his dismal teaching career in brain science, his affair with a sweet undergraduate: These episodes demonstrate Doctorow’s power as a storyteller, but they arrive like oases in the desert of a tedious narrative. Aside from the mixed-up chronology, we have to wade through Andrew’s banal pronouncements about the brain and the nature of mind. “Consciousness without world is impossible,” he claims — but what about novel without plot?
The problem of what’s real here and what isn’t extends beyond the dubious events that Andrew describes. Although there’s no more intriguing subject than “how the brain becomes the mind,” this cognitive scientist doesn’t seem convincingly familiar with cognitive science or recent brain research. Instead, Andrew just pops off with little pop-philosophy conundrums. Decades after Daniel Dennett, John Searle and other contemporary scientists and philosophers began writing about consciousness for a lay audience, we deserve something more sophisticated from this novel — more cortex, less vortex. It’s fine for Andrew to claim that “free will is an illusion,” but he announces this as if he’s said something revelatory. “There is nothing you can think of except yourself thinking,” he goes on. “You are in the depthless dingledom of your own soul.”
Please, let’s leave my dingledom out of this.
Tellingly, Andrew sounds much more conversant with American literature, particularly Mark Twain’s work, which is closer to Doctorow’s skill set as a longtime English professor. Indeed, thematically, this novel echoes the cynical solipsism of Twain’s last attempt at a novel, “The Mysterious Stranger.” Andrew also speaks movingly about Twain’s struggle with depression: “I see his frail grasp of life at those moments of his prose, his after-dinner guard left down and his upwardly mobile decency become vulnerable to his self-creation. And the woman he loved, gone, and a child he loved, gone, and he looks in the mirror and hates the pretense of his white hair and mustache and suit, all gathered in the rocking-chair wisdom that resides in his bleary eyes. He despairs of the likelihood that the world is his illusion, that he is but a vagrant mind in a futile drift through eternity.”
But beautiful, emotionally genuine passages like that must vie in this novel with some surprisingly trite sections. Isn’t it awfully late to be using little people — whom Andrew nervously calls “diminutives” — for comic, surreal effect? Worse is the final quarter of the novel, set in the White House after the Sept. 11 attacks. With its well-worn vision of George W. Bush as an inept frat boy surrounded by maniacal advisers, the story stalls in limp political satire passed off as bitter historical analysis.
In the end, “Andrew’s Brain,” like Andrew himself, is merely a pretender — claiming more profundity than it can deliver, offering us something elliptical and vague as a simulacrum of intellectual provocation. Novelists such as Richard Powers and Alex Shakar have shown what a boundlessly fascinating subject the relationship between brain and mind can be, but exploring that issue in a meaningful way requires more than a collection of dramatic gestures and philosophical koans. When Andrew describes himself as a “fake person,” he has diagnosed the problem with this novel.
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On Jan. 21 at 7 p.m., E.L. Doctorow will speak at Sidwell Friends School, 4450 Wisconsin Ave. NW. For information about tickets, call Politics & Prose Bookstore at 202-364-1919.