You have to be confident in your abilities as an author to attempt a novel about the life of the mind. Introspection --- so goes the theory in American publishing, anyway --- doesn’t make for a compelling narrative. But who would you rather see chronicle the confessions of a cognitive scientist pondering salient events of his life than E.L. Doctorow? He is one of America’s finest prose stylists. ANDREW’S BRAIN, his latest effort, is, alas, a disappointment, but it still contains set pieces that are as vivid as anything he’s ever written.
Most of ANDREW’S BRAIN is a series of conversations between Andrew and “Doc,” a person who may or may not be Andrew’s analyst. On a snowy night at the beginning of the novel, Andrew arrives at the house of his ex-wife, Martha, a classical pianist, and her opera singer husband. With Andrew is his swaddled newborn daughter, Willa. Willa’s mother, Briony, a much younger woman than Andrew, has died, and Andrew has come to Martha’s house in New Rochelle in search of help. Martha is willing to assist, but her husband wants Andrew to go away. You’ve always been a screw-up, he tells Andrew. The girl’s mother probably died because of you.
"[T]he book contains plenty of examples of Doctorow’s brilliant prose. Historical events in the final third of the book are an abrupt shift from those that precede them (and include scenes that are wholly unbelievable), but the writing is crisp and compelling."
This is a recurring theme in the novel: Andrew either blames himself or receives blame for the death of others. The episodes in which Andrew may or may not be culpable alternate with passages in which he talks about cognitive theories and their application to his life. After he tells Doc about the visit to Martha’s house, Andrew shifts to a recitation on the pathogenesis of schizophrenia and bipolar disease. He says he often imagines soundless voices: He can hear the meanings of the words but not the sound. For example, he was standing one day on a street corner in Washington, DC, where he worked as a government consultant, and thought he heard a voice say, “Fix the screen door.” He imagines an old woman and her granddaughter in a farmhouse. He then says he took a bus to western Pennsylvania and found just such a house, in which a little girl drew pictures in crayon at the kitchen table. The analyst asks Andrew if this visit really occurred, or if he is making it up.
Doctorow keeps us off-balance throughout the novel: Can we believe Andrew? Did the events occur as he describes them? Andrew often muses upon consciousness and our inability to fully understand the workings of the human brain. As he gradually reveals the pieces of his story --- from his relationship with Briony, a gymnast who was one of his students when he had a low-paying adjunct professorship, to the women he knew at Yale and on trips to Zagreb and St. Petersburg --- we are forced to piece together these clues and figure out who Andrew really is.
ANDREW’S BRAIN is sketchy rather than fully fleshed out. Some of the characters appear too infrequently and are rendered too quickly. We don’t care about them as much as we should. A bigger problem has to do with time. We’re led to believe that the novel takes place in the present day, but two-thirds of the way through the book, the narrative takes an unexpected turn that proves our assumptions false. Novels should deviate from the obvious, but there’s a difference between surprising the reader and confusing him. An unreliable narrator works when what isn’t clear to the narrator is clear to the reader --- THE DEBT TO PLEASURE, PALE FIRE and THE REMAINS OF THE DAY are good examples. But by hiding key information and withholding hints of the truth, an author runs the risk of alienating his audience.
Perhaps the idea was to write a novel that mirrors the unpredictability of the brain. Most of us jump from one thought to another, go into fugue states, shut down, start up again. ANDREW’S BRAIN is a brave attempt to redefine the possibilities of the novel but doesn’t quite achieve its ambition.
That said, the book contains plenty of examples of Doctorow’s brilliant prose. Historical events in the final third of the book are an abrupt shift from those that precede them (and include scenes that are wholly unbelievable), but the writing is crisp and compelling. The story of Andrew and Briony is beautifully done. It’s too bad the clarity Doctorow brings to these passages is missing from the book as a whole.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on January 17, 2014
- Publication Date: January 14, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 224 pages
- Publisher: Random House
- ISBN-10: 1400068819
- ISBN-13: 9781400068814