The Brain Man: What is E. L. Doctorow Up to?

Just what is novelist E. L. Doctorow up to in his latest fiction inside the brain of a man who may or may not be delusional. Tom LeClair on a confusing mix of neuroscience, George W. Bush, and unreliability.

Arian Camilleri

If an octogenarian novelist can surprise in January, it could be a happy new year for fiction. Unlike Doctorow’s best-known novels, Andrew’s Brain is not historical. Andrew is an eccentric like the mid-century packrats of Homer and Langley, Doctorow’s last novel, but as a cognitive scientist Andrew is cutting-edge contemporary. Instead of Doctorow’s usual big-screen approach to story, we have 200 pages of personal conversation between Andrew and a psychiatrist. Reading Andrew’s early revelations about his vengeful first wife Martha and then his passion for his second much younger partner Briony, I thought I had wandered into a Bellow or Roth novel. Then more surprises: about half way through, Andrew’s Brain turns into a 9/11 novel and after that a political satire when Andrew becomes George W. Bush’s advisor on world-wide neurological developments.

The book even has a surprise ending implying that the psychiatrist may be a government interrogator and that some of Andrew’s odd collage of styles and influences may be a desperate—sometimes clever, sometimes wacky—self-justifying fabrication that he hopes will lead to his freedom or, in the novel’s last word, “redemption.” Since Andrew contradicts himself and calls himself “Andrew the Pretender,” his unreliability is fairly obvious, but the ending makes the book enigmatic, unusual for Doctorow, and places Andrew’s Brain with classic works of self-serving false pretenses such as Ford’s The Good Soldier, Camus’s The Fall, and Nabokov’s Lolita. When romancing the dewy Briony, the cosmopolitan New Yorker Andrew sounds like the creepy European Humbert Humbert. And like Camus’s “judge-penitent,” Doctorow’s narrator may admit numerous inadequacies and failures to evade something truly monstrous.

Unreliability is brain-deep according to Andrew, who cites cognitive research demonstrating that the brain tricks itself into believing in the mind, that the brain makes decisions which the mind thinks it makes, and, by extension, that humans live by fictions all of their days as well as their dreaming nights. The following exchange sums up this central theme of the novel:

We’re all Pretenders, Doctor, even you. Especially you. Why are you smiling? Pretending is the brain’s work. It’s what it does. The brain can even pretend not to be itself.

Oh? What can it pretend to be, just by way of example?

Well, for the longest time, and until just recently, the soul.

So what is the novelist whose work was frequently based on the mind’s historical facts supposed to do with the new brain facts of cognitive science? Perhaps compose a fiction about hard-wired fictionalizing, a fiction that reminds readers of their synaptic deceptions. Reminds and “re-minds”: retrofits our minds to our brains.

If a novel about brains and minds sounds forbiddingly abstract, know that Doctorow only intermittently strokes neurology into anecdotes and settings as concrete and emotionally charged as the materials of his historical fiction. He refers to the cognitive scientist Antonio Damasio, whose work posits the brain’s “embodiment” and the physical basis of feelings. Andrew’s Brain is embodied in Andrew’s intense experiences: inadvertently poisoning his child, ruining his marriage, falling in love with a woman very unlike his sad-sack self, losing her at the World Trade Center, giving their child to his first wife because he could not care for the baby. Flipping back and forth in time, the novel ranges in space from the West Village of New York City to a college in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains to a town south of Los Angeles where Andrew meets Briony’s parents, “Diminutives” who may have escaped from Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust. Andrew claims that he lacks feelings, but characters and events are lovingly—or obsessively—described.

Accidental meetings and accidental tragedies rule Andrew’s life. He tries to find or impose a pattern, and this activity constitutes Doctorow’s plot. Andrew’s emotional and intellectual conflicts with the interlocutor also provide traditional novelistic tension. Andrew immediately tells the “shrink” that cognitive science will put psychiatrists out of work in the future. Later on, the interlocutor complains that Andrew’s story of his love for Briony makes him a “dull fellow.” Mostly, though, the “other” voice is either a sympathetic listener or reality checker while Andrew works through his confessions, rationalizations, and accusations. Since Andrew speaks about himself in both the first and third person, the voice of the interlocutor may also be Andrew’s, perhaps the voice of the mind, “ever the practical fellow, tidying things up, expecting people to do what was logical and right. Living by the book.” Earlier Andrew has claimed the “brain’s mind” is “a kind of jail,” so Andrew may be imprisoned in his own guilty, schizophrenic consciousness—not in a literal jail. With this possibility, Doctorow moves the novel back beyond subtle modernist experiments in unreliability to the nineteenth-century domain of Poe’s crazed narrators and uncanny psychodramas.

To get outside the head, Doctorow has Andrew report on time away from the psychiatrist/interrogator, including a failed trip to see his daughter and a Wittgenstein-imitating retreat to a Norwegian fjord, but the ending questions the plausibility of these episodes. Andrew’s period in the White House may also be imagined, an autofiction inspired by the conceit that Karl Rove was George Bush’s brain. Andrew maintains he was Bush’s roommate at Yale and was taken into the Oval Office as a joke on “Chaingang” and “Rumbum.” Andrew says he gave the two advisors the famous “Prisoners’ Dilemma” game-theory problem that tests the value of silent cooperation against self-serving (but actually self-defeating) betrayal. Not surprisingly, Chaingang and Rumbum choose betrayal. When Andrew senses he is being betrayed by his old college friend, Andrew plays the fool (a Holy Fool, he claims) and does an impromptu headstand that is interpreted as a threat to the President, landing Andrew in a rendition facility. Or so he says.

I wish I could say, after reading the novel twice, that my brain or mind knows for certain what Doctorow is up to. The pages on 9/11 are brief and seem gratuitous. The political satire is broad and not very original. These are major flaws—unless Doctorow is suggesting that Andrew has displaced blame for his personal actions onto public events such as terrorism or governmental hyper-security. I don’t think Doctorow is mocking cognitive science though Andrew’s Brain is cog. sci. lite when compared with Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2 or David Lodge’s Thinks , novels that dramatize the science’s findings and effects more fully. Parody of fellow Jewish-American writers wouldn’t seem worth Doctorow’s while. The novel might be a metafiction in the style of John Barth, who has also in his eighties been influenced by cognitive science. For Doctorow, the brain could stand for free creation and the mind represent forms and genres. Or Andrew could be the novelist, the interlocutor the reader (and uncertain reviewer).

Or maybe this novelist with a reputation for middle-brow earnestness just wanted to have some late-life fun playing the Holy Fool, standing his previous work on its head, putting together a literary and intellectual sport, a genetic mutant of “invented silliness” in his long career of seriousness, a Readers’ Dilemma in which the author betrays expectations. Comedy is often no country for old men, but when humor combines with trauma, both personal and public, the hybrid—like the corpus-callosum joined right brain and left brain—can produce surprising effects and idiosyncratic art.

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Now my final try at picking Andrew’s Brain: it’s the kind of novel that Oliver Sacks might write if he wrote fiction. Sacks has been continually surprised by the anomalies of his neurological patients and impressed by their abilities to cope with their deficits. Doctorow has confabulated a work that mimics the vagaries and precisions, the low stupidity and high sentence, the fears and desires of deficient consciousness without employing the old-fashioned technique of “stream.” Although Doctorow does not mention the prominent cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, his Consciousness Explained provides the metaphor that may best describe Doctorow’s composition. Dennett says consciousness is like a congress of various intelligences creating out of conflicts and agreements and irrelevancies multiple drafts of bills that consciousness is continually revising to fit or shape circumstances. The incongruous, dissonant, and sometimes pleasantly surprising elements of Andrew’s Brain are these drafts arranged and edited—but not “tidied up”—by an experienced novelist who knows how to give just enough order to Andrew’s chaos to make the novel a beguiling—and disturbing—simulacrum of our brains’ and minds’ daily fictionalizing of what we call reality in the present and history in the past.