For EL Doctorow, history is a sort of craft drawer, a disorganized accumulation of memories and facts of varying size, shape and validity, from which elements can be plucked to serve the narrative of his characters, acting as touch points to now and then bring the reader some much-needed context.
In Andrew’s Brain, his 19th novel, the musings and lamentations of a cognitive scientist take on the oral-historical form that has, for the better part of three decades, been of particular fascination to Doctorow.
“In the past few years I’ve been interested in the work of the so-called oral historians,” he said in a 1986 Paris Review interview. “The statements people make about their own lives to oral historians have a certain form that I think I have figured out.”
Oral historians and psychiatrists play a similar function, and here, our off-camera (though not entirely silent, a la Portnoy’s Complaint)shrink gets perhaps more history than he bargained for.
Andrew’s Brain begins as the harrowing confession of our pseudonymous protagonist and patient, who explains, in the third person, that “his friend” had just shown up at the house of his ex-wife and her opera-singer husband holding his baby, whose mother, his second wife, had recently died. We soon have a “When you say ‘your friend’, do you really mean you?” moment with the doctor that finally establishes Andrew as our narrator, although the slip to third person will be a recurring one.
Andrew has some, let’s say, shortcomings. He is severely prone to all manner of accidents and misfortunes, which we quickly learn is to blame for the death of his first child (with Martha, the ex-wife), and which we assume must be the reason for the untimely death of Brioni, his young bride.
Andrew is also, as previously mentioned, a cognitive scientist, one severely prone to digression and unconcerned with chronology. He regales us with a loose approximation of his life’s story, all the while slipping into soliloquys on free will and the brain’s haphazard construction of both self and memory.
Doctorow has spent a career bending the verisimilitude of personal accounts, passing them through various lenses, corroborating and then casting doubt on them, all the while trying “to break down the distinction between fiction and actuality.” But here, Andrew’s trouble reconciling his gray matter with the real world rarely ventures beyond the realm of familiar pop-science revelations about the brain; there’s nothing new here for anyone familiar with the more accessible work of Daniel Dennett or Bruce Hood or Joseph LeDoux. Andrew wows young Brioni with his pseudo-neuro-philosophy, but whatever original research he has contributed to his field remains a mystery, and he’s happy to rehash grad school for us.
The heart of the book, or at least the part of his life Andrew feels most compelled to share with us, is his budding relationship with Brioni, a student of his at the Northern Arizona University that Andrew has chosen for a new start after the disintegration of his life with Martha. Brioni, who appears as little more than nubile cliché at first (she’s even a gymnast), eventually becomes the only student remaining in Andrew’s introductory course on cognitive science thanks to his fanciful asides, leading to an awkward courtship that sees Andrew somehow and against all odds stealing her away from her quarterback boyfriend. Even as readers conditioned to have an emotional bias towards the sensitive nerd over the lunkhead jock, we’re still never quite certain what Brioni sees in Andrew.
What begins as a tale of personal misfortune takes an abrupt left turn in the final third of the book, which (foregoing spoilers) sees Andrew reunite with and become employed by an old college chum of some political fame. Andrew observes the power dynamics of the political team put together by his former roommate, before getting sucked in himself.
This head-scratching turn of events — which might be considered political satire, were its caricatures not so familiar, so prosaic, and maybe even a bit passé — seems aimed at distracting us from Andrew and his transgressions, with Andrew trying to reframe his own culpability with that of someone whose crimes (or rather, ineptness) are greater than his own. It is blatantly fantastical, if not a touch apologetic, and shouldn’t be mistaken for satire. Otherwise, the reader risks disappointment.
In that aforementioned Paris Review interview, Doctorow would go on to speak of the oral-historic treatment of his then-new novel,World’s Fair, saying: “My idea was to lend that voice verisimilitude by dropping in some oral-historic statements by other members of the family.” Here, Doctorow reverses course, with Andrew’s account being unchecked by anyone, save for the doctor’s skeptical-yet-sparse inquiries, leaving us to make our assumptions based on our own personal feelings about Andrew.
Critics could say, “We get it: unreliable narrator, the fallibility of memory, the fragility of human experience, the human being not as a fixed, unchanging entity but as a collection of synaptic connections subject to randomness and outside influence to a point far beyond our comfort zone.” But, even if true, that doesn’t detract from the fact that Andrew’s Brain is a compelling piece of writing.
As for Andrew himself, the gripes are harder to defend against. He comes across as vaguely well-intentioned, but also too self-absorbed to be entirely sympathetic. “[I]t is dangerous to stare into yourself,” Andrew quips at one point. But it might be navel-gazing that he should be more concerned with.
This review originally appeared on Metazen.