Friday, January 10, 2014

Review: Andrew's Brain by E.L. Doctorow

When I received an advanced copy of E.L. Doctorow's newest novel, Andrew's Brain from the fine folks at Random House, I was excited.

Although Doctorow's novels have been hit or miss for me (enjoyed Ragtime and The March, loved Book of Daniel, couldn't finished World's Fair), I am always on board with the prospect of unreliable narrators and stories about story-telling. And Andrew's Brain offers us a doozy.

Andrew is a cognitive scientist with a capacity of self-inflicted wounds. He describes himself as a haphazard scholar, an indifferent lover and a compulsive shoot-from-the-hip decision maker. His life work studying the chemical miracle that makes the brain into the mind has left him without the superhuman deductive abilities he thinks such a study should bestow.

One of the things I like most about Andrew's Brain, especially compared to Doctorow's previous work, is the smallness of the cast. No personified masses in this novel; Andrew tells his story to someone he calls "Doc," who might be a psychiatrist or a prison warden or both. Andrew tells us about his two wives, and his two rivals for those women- his first wife's new husband, and his second wife's ex-boyfriend. The story told through dialogue, it has all the self-deprecating humor of Portnoy's Complaint without the sexual sensationalism.

As a small jab at modern literature, my wife and I divide our two bookcases of 20th and 21st century fiction: on the left are the lonely men, on the right are the awesome women. Like Roth's canon, Doctorow's newest work is the interior space of a lonely man, the kaleidoscopic tale he tells himself within the privacy of his head to keep trudging on in the world. Without giving too much away, Andrew's wounds are real, his trauma is rooted in the modern age. Andrew's story is told haphazardly, the punchline sometimes proceeding the joke, the aftermath often shown to us before the decision. It is, I think, about the way we piece our lives together and make sense of ourselves, even when that should be impossible.

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