Andrew’s Brain by E. L. Doctorow

Andrew’s Brain (Random House, 244 pages), by E. L. Doctorow, is the narrative of a brain whose content has been digitized, whose DNA code has been cracked, and which now resides in a vat or has been uploaded to a computer at some Bush-era detention or torture site, unaware that he is no longer embodied, believing himself to be telling his story to a therapist (who, Andrew suspects, may be CIA), sometimes imagining himself to be elsewhere, writing to or phoning his therapist, sometimes visiting his office, but never realizing that he, like any human perhaps, has no true self-awareness because a brain cannot objectively know itself.

Andrew, a cognitive scientist who believes that science has the power to understand how matter becomes mind, has suffered this fate because he stupidly lets Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush know that science has reached this point of replicating consciousness, adding that they ought not ever try to create true artificial intelligence if they value human existence. Apparently, the evil trio does not heed the warning, and our Andrew eventually has become the first experiment.

That’s the hidden story, what a careful reader gleans from Doctorow’s many hints throughout and implicit suggestion in the final chapter: “Am I a computer?” asks Andrew of his interrogator. The story that Andrew’s brain explicitly tells is about the man with fully embodied brain, Andrew, who all his life has been exceedingly accident prone. As a child racing his sled into the street, he causes a car to serve and the driver dies. He lets the dog leash drop for a moment and his little dachshund is grabbed and devoured by a red-tailed hawk as he looks on. He gives his infant daughter the wrong medicine and kills her. Andrew says he has trouble feeling anything about these events. The brain scientist part of him knows his lack of emotion is due to trauma, but there is guilt and self-loathing, nevertheless.

Then Andrew, at about fifty-five, meets “the love of his life,” (is Doctorow being ironic, using such a cliché?) who, at about twenty-two, is a student in his Cognitive Science 101 class at the midwestern university to which his has run to escape seeing his ex-wife Martha and remembering their dead child.

The new love is Briony, beautiful, smart, very much in love with this moody old professor and can’t get enough of him sexually. She gets pregnant right away, graduates with a degree in mathematics, and they move to New York City. They have a healthy baby girl and life couldn’t be more wonderful. Andrew has feelings, powerful feelings of love. All this, according to the convention of too many male narratives, means that Briony will die early in Act I, or else the hero will not have sufficient suffering about which to write.

Andrew’s Brain may be one of contemporary fiction’s best written novels in terms of style, lyricism, characterization, description and narrative interest. Doctorow’s ultimate message, falls short of his style. I don’t know why I should expect that his message be as profound as his skill. Profound it is. Just look at this scene, shortly after Briony’s death, that opens the novel:

“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. Of what? We’ll get to that. I can’t do this alone, Andrew said, as Martha stared at him from the open doorway. It happened to have been snowing that night, and Martha was transfixed by the soft creature-like snowflakes alighting on Andrew’s NY Yankees hat brim. Martha was like that, enrapt by the peripheral things as if setting them to music. Even in ordinary times, she was slow to respond, looking at you with her large dark rolling protuberant eyes. Then the smile would come, or the nod, or the shake of the head. Meanwhile the heat from her home drifted through the open door and fogged up Andrew’s eyeglasses. He stood there behind his foggy lenses like a blind man in the snowfall and was without volition when at last she reached out, gently took the swaddled infant from him, stepped back, and closed the door in his face.”

The author is like Martha, ever aware of the peripheral and seemingly irrelevant, and this is what makes him a brilliant writer, always providing context for narration, as it goes on in the busy and irrationally associative consciousness that is what it is to be human.

Doctorow’s art, in and of itself, ought to be enough. But it’s not.

His main subject is the question of freewill and the origins consciousness, which would seem to offer a lot in terms of deep thinking. I guess I expected more from Doctorow than the kinds of musings about the philosophy of mind such as one finds in New York Times bestsellers, which is, apparently, where he has gleaned what he knows on that question. Bestselling science is always the apparently controversial stuff, over which much ink will be spilled, more contentious books printed and more bestsellers sold. It’s the apparently paradoxical stuff that inspires freshman fits of melancholy. But it is not profound, none of it. And ultimately Doctorow’s investigating whether or not the mind is “like a computer” or whether or not genes “have memory” or their “codes” can be “read” is superficial science fiction. Such comparisons are trite metaphors that no one doing serious work in the philosophy of mind entertains anymore.

[Disclaimer: I work in the philosophy of mind.]

After a fantasy life and short marriage (less than two years), Andrew’s beautiful and perfect wife goes out jogging one morning, heads over to the WTC and runs up the stairs, on September 11th. Andrew will later hold on to the memory of her “clear blue eyes in her sturdy innocence.”

Thematically her accidental death in the towers doesn’t work in the way one might expect with so gifted a writer. The reader wants some thematic consistency. We expected Andrew to have contributed to her death in some awful and unanticipated way. Consequently, her death is anti-climatic compared to the story of the poor little infant’s death.

Andrew says that he blames President Bush for his wife’s death because intelligence about the coming attack was widely available and he did nothing to stop it. Now is Bush guilty of Briony’s death in the same way that Andrew has been guilty of causing three deaths?  Was allowing the attack to happen just one big oopsie perpetrated by the grossly incompetent leaders of the free world? Could Andrew really believe that?

[Disclaimer: I have also written a 9/11 novel.]

Soon we learn that Andrew and George W. had been college roommates at Yale and that Andrew had taken exams for Bush, which allowed him to pass his classes, get his degree, and (the reader may suppose) eventually become President. Indirectly, then, Andrew is guilty of contributing to Briony’s death and the deaths of almost 3,000 others, as well as the millions of deaths in the war on terror to follow.

After September 11, through writerly coincidence, Andrew reconnects with his former roommate and becomes the token neuroscientist at the White House, and this is how he gets himself in the predicament of being labeled an “enemy combatant” and shipped off to “indefinite detention” after he tells Bush, “Chaingang” and “Rumdum” what he really thinks of them and their warmongering.

I’ve given away two of the book’s surprises here: the detail that Briony dies in the towers and the fact that Andrew and old W had been roommates. I don’t think this information gained any power being revealed as surprises. In fact, Andrew’s Brain is one of those books that gives more on a second reading, when you can pick up on the subtle hints about ultimate events. Briony’s death in the WTC needs to be described after Andrew has confessed that he believes he’s partly responsible for getting Bush into office, and therefore partly responsible for what happened in September. This is the temporal order that allows Andrew’s brain to invent the meaning he does for Briony’s death when it happens.

Doctorow makes the Bush administration triumvirate more sinister than most people suspect and points to growing danger, “You’re only the worst so far. There is far worse to come, perhaps not tomorrow, perhaps not next year, but you have shown us the path into the dark wood.” But in focusing on a few corrupt individuals who are “running” everything, Doctorow overlooks the fact of systemic corruption so deep and so complete that the individual actors matter really very little, and, in the end, Doctorow, like other critics of the NeoCons, only perpetuates false hopes in new, better leaders. Representational democracy has failed us. All our lobbied, bribed and blackmailed politicians only get in the way of our right to self-govern.

I am a biased reviewer, as I’ve indicated above, deeply involved in the same themes that Doctorow has undertaken, and therefore I am more critical than the average reader might be about his conclusions, insofar as they seem to diverge from my own. But the writing is excellent and Andrew’s Brain will forever be one of my favorite novels. The artful writer demonstrates his humanity (his animality) and disproves the theory, held by Andrew, that thought can be described as a rational process, quantized and reproduced.

-V. N. Alexander, author of Locus Amoenus, 2015

One thought on “Andrew’s Brain by E. L. Doctorow

  1. This phrasing–[the writer’s] “providing context for narration, as it goes on in the busy and irrationally associative consciousness that is what it is to be human”–is apt and helpful, in my view, to trying to understand how fictional prose (especially fictional prose) lifts the reader’s consciousness from the bare black marks of language code on the page–and beyond a very low response to conventional phrasing or cliche–to an enlarging sphere of excitement in perception, although articulating this perception is very difficult or impossible.

    This review suggests possibilities for this “lifting up” in Doctorow’s novel which I have not yet read. As another example, Locus Amoenus, Victoria N. Alexander’s own 9/11 novel, offers this enlightening and enlarging phenomenon as a consequence of the Hamlet parody with that novel, again in terms of the “busy and irrationally associative consciousness.”

    That is, we seek for the inarticulated (inarticulable?) that flashes and hovers as part of perception, which the novel form functions as catalyst to lift off. This effect is surely the “power” we feel or sense and are transformed by, although expressing that sense or insight is usually inadequate.

    Especially with an event such as 9/11 this subtle, powerful associative force reaches deeply toward what makes us human-beyond-animal, it seems to me. If the light in that human attic flickered on long enough we might move ahead.

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