Jay Fox on Andrew's Brain by E.L. Doctorow
By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
E.L. Doctorow has won virtually every award that an author can win. His prose can rival some of the most vivid passages of Nabokov. Like Don DeLillo, he has the ability to capture the dynamics between characters with nothing more than a curl of the lip or an arc of the brow. Although he is a living legend, he writes with the passion of someone half his age—perhaps even younger.
Andrew's Brain, his most recent novel, also demonstrates that Mr. Doctorow is capable of setting a story in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries without having to view the present through the prism of his youth. There is very little of the self-indulgent examination of the long, strange trip from innocence to empire that embodies so much Baby Boomer fiction. It also lacks that generation's narcissistic tendency to universalize generational experience—as they are a generation, in the words of Thomas Pynchon, "…lost to any sense of continuous tradition." If we are to believe this group that came into existence in the wake of the Second World War, life before them was simple, peaceful and uncorrupt. Some of the more devoted members to this myth seem to be of the belief that sex, like the teenager, was not invented until 1955.
This is what Andrew's Brain is not. Now what the novel is.
While it is most certainly a brilliant work of fiction, it also ventures into the field of epistemology—the study of knowledge. Such an esoteric topic should come as no surprise. The title of the book, Andrew's Brain, makes it pretty clear that it is going to be a novel with some extensive philosophical scaffolding. This is dangerous for even the most accomplished author, but Mr. Doctorow has clearly done his homework and his prose was as stellar as it has ever been.
Similar to many works of psychological and philosophical fiction (Dostoyevsky, in particular), it is a confessional monologue that does not follow a man's decent into madness, but rather begins after the fall. For while there is certainly a story arc and several intriguing passages on subjects like history, politics and cognitive science, Mr. Doctorow's interest lay in putting Andrew, the fallen narrator, under the microscope. The novel opens with the following paragraph:
"I can tell you about my friend Andrew, the cognitive scientist. But it's not pretty. One evening he appeared with an infant in his arms at the door of his ex-wife, Martha. Because Briony, his lovely young wife after Martha, had died."
Within another two or three pages, we learn that Andrew speaks of himself in the third-person; that he is a schlemiel who is an agent of misery for everyone within his proximity; that his negligence resulted in the death of his first child; that that death precipitated his divorce with Martha; and that just about everything that Andrew tells us is dubious because it appears as though the words on the page are actually being addressed (both verbally and through writing) to a therapist who is hearing the confessional—i.e. that he's more than likely quite mad. In fact, it is not even clear if this therapist, who is known only as Doc, is real or an imaginary manifestation of Andrew's guilt for all of the misfortune he has spread. Andrew does have a habit of estranging himself from his emotions and actions to such a degree that he speaks in third-person, after all.
Upon learning that Andrew is unreliable as a narrator within the first few pages, readers are confronted with an epistemological restriction, one that comes up again and again throughout the novel: We readers can only know what the narrator discloses to us. This is true of all fiction. We can infer and we can extrapolate, but we cannot know the events that take place within the fictional world if the writer (or the narrator) neglects to mention them. Furthermore, if we believe everything that narrator tells us, we can sometimes end up siding with characters like Humbert Humbert, literature's most famous connoisseur of nymphets. One could call this The Reader's Dilemma—too much trust in a narrator and we may end up siding with a pedophile; too little trust and we begin to fall into a type of solipsism that defeats the whole purpose of reading.
This brings up a second epistemological restriction, one that both parallels the first and frequently comes up in some of Andrew's more agitated non sequiturs (of which there are many). It is the stuff of Epistemology 101 and Descartes: We are essentially trapped in our own heads, and we cannot know if our senses deceive us because our senses are our means of interacting with the world. Andrew even goes so far as to refer to his own brain as a kind of prison akin to the cave in the famous Platonic allegory. The philosophical references do not end there. Andrew also mentions some of the more recent pioneers in the examination of consciousness, such as Emerson, Sartre and even Gerald Edelman—the latter being a man who, on top of being a Nobel laureate and scientist, was remarkably optimistic with regards to believing that humanity may soon be able to explain consciousness.
While the cerebral (or cephalic, as Andrew would prefer) topics kept the book stimulating to say the least, I couldn't rightly meditate on these subjects while reading. What I ultimately latched onto was a theme that initially seemed to be integral to understanding the larger meaning behind Andrew's Brain. Throughout the novel there appears a reoccurring triad of archetypes who are lifted from the pages of Pushkin's Boris Godunov: the pretender, the king and the holy fool. While these identities are more or less static in Pushkin, as well as the opera of the same name, in Andrew's Brain they are fluid—they manifest themselves in different individuals at different moments throughout the book. In fact, Andrew clearly sees himself as taking the role of all three at different stages of his life.
Unfortunately, this extended metaphor ultimately beings to unravel. Once the references to the opera begin to be overtly employed even though there are very few discernible parallels between Andrew's Brain and Pushkin's Boris Godunov—but before the book transforms into an indictment of the Bush (44) administration and a retrograde narrative reminiscent of Robbe-Grillet—it feels as though the once promising and intellectually fecund novel loses its way. It seems as though Mr. Doctorow is trying to intimate a new perspective from which to view the triad to which he dedicates so much time, but I simply couldn't see it.
While it would seem foolish to assume that an author as intelligent and seasoned as Mr. Doctorow did not fully realize his initial vision with this book, it doesn't feel heretical to acknowledge that Mr. Doctorow did not succeed in making Andrew's Brain particularly easy to decipher. Though it was frustrating, it almost felt like it was the frustration that arises upon realizing that a puzzle has been approached incorrectly, and that one has to simply start anew in order to arrive at the proper answer. As Andrew's Brain is only a 200-page novel, this is not a particularly tall order. On account of the beauty of the prose, I can see myself trying to solve this puzzle again relatively soon.