Review of E. L. Doctorow’s Andrew’s Brain, 2014, 198pp.
Many readers will know the name E. L. Doctorow from his works of fiction including Ragtime, The March, The Book of Daniel, City of God, and Welcome to Hard Times, and his wide achievements and honours including the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, the National Humanities Medal, and a Gold Medal for Fiction awarded in 2013 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Doctorow is well known for his work in “historical fiction”, a label he has moved away from in his latest novel Andrew’s Brain. Doctorow has moved well away from historical fiction – even though Andrew’s Brain does have a strong historical base to it – and into the realm of psychology and cognitive development.
In Andrew’s Brain, Doctorow abandons lineal storytelling that was a feature of his distinguished novels, such as The March – a precisely woven novel set in late 1864 and early 1865 during the American Civil War. In an interview with Manuel Roig-Franzia in the Washington Post, Doctorow explains that he wrote Andrew’s Brain in order to challenge the reader: “I do think this book, more than most, is one that judges its readers. If someone is looking for ordinary formulaic fiction, this is not it.” In the most part, Doctorow is correct. It isn’t your ordinary novel, yet it isn’t really challenging.
Andrew’s Brain is centred on the extended conversations, and writings, between the cognitive scientist, Andrew, and a frequent questioner, that Andrew calls “Doc”. Andrew is retelling his misfortunate life, prompted by his thoughts and questions from “Doc”. It is through these conversations, thoughts, and writings that Andrew gradually reconstructs his path of disorder and misfortune – his loves, his tragedies, and his triumphs that lead up to his current position.
There is a lot of pain in Andrew’s story. At the beginning of the novel, Andrew is still dealing with a fatal mistake that led to the death of his baby daughter:
It is true I accidentally killed my baby girl that I had with Martha: In good faith I fed her the medicine I believed had been prescribed by our pediatrician. The druggist sent over the wrong medicine and I was not as alert as I should have been…
Andrew’s second tragedy, the death of his second wife, Briony, who died in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Briony’s death not only leaves Andrew widowed, it also leaves their newborn daughter, Willa, motherless. The terrorist attacks in Andrew’s Brain are both vivid and emotional. After the towers collapse, Andrew attempts to look for her:
In the confusion, the fire engines, people stumbling through the streets, shouting, sirens, it was as if all of that had swallowed her up. Where was she? She would think first of Willa. She’d be back in a second to make sure the baby was all right. Wouldn’t she? Then where was she? Doctorow, who has his own personal story with the terrorist attacks, deftly conveys the confusion that was present that day along with the hopeless and desperate search for loved ones days after the attacks: There were in the street these posters everywhere plastered, on every wall, on every fence, on mailboxes, on phone booths and in subway stations, with the photographs of intensely alive, of can’t possibly be dead, faces. Name, age, last seen. Phone numbers in black marker. Have you seen this person? Call this number. Please call. I went around putting up the picture of Briony. Name, age, last seen. I wanted people to see her face. I knew it was useless, but I thought it necessary. I had taken in the park, she was smiling at me. I had a folder with her faces, a hundred copies, printed at Kinko’s, and I went around posting them. She was in that community of the last seen, their names and addresses, that they were loved. Please call. She was in that community of what was left of them.
After enduring what he could, and the sleepless nights waiting for Briony to come home, Andrew decides to take Willa to Martha.
After taking Willa to Martha – Andrew believed it was only fair for Willa to be taken care of by Martha considering it was he who killed their child – Andrew sells everything and moves to Washington, and as an academic, now takes a job as a science teacher at a public school. During one lesson, it is interrupted by a surprise visit by the President of the United States. And, as it turns out, Andrew knows the President from his time at Yale. From here, Andrew is hired by the President and appointed to a position titled ‘White House Office of Neurological Research’.
Andrew’s presence in the White House and Oval Office creates some suspicion and he becomes a source of interest for White House reporters – not to mention some conspiracy theorists. It is here that we also meet two other characters, Rumbum and Chaingang. Even though the Presidents name is never mentioned, it is quite clear that the President is G. W. Bush. Chaingang and Rumbum also resemble former Vice President Dick Cheney and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Andrew now becomes a pawn in some type of game between the President, Chaingang and Rumbum.
Andrew then finds himself in an unknown location continuing his life of suffering, despair, and his ability to carry disaster with him. His final thought reflects upon his desire to protect his children like the way Mark Twain – one of his idols – did with his children, and not be the pretender he himself, and his life, have made him out to be.
While Andrew’s Brain does leave particular questions open to challenge the reader – for example, who is “Doc”? Is he a psychologist, or is he a close friend? Or, is Andrew really the “first computer invested with consciousness?” – it isn’t an extremely challenging read. Even though the novel doesn’t follow the previous footprints of other E. L. Doctorow novels, the storyline does flow through the disastrous life of Andrew. Andrew’s voice throughout the novel is very fascinating, and at times, charming – even amusing. He is clearly intelligent, demonstrated with his vast speeches and thoughts on the human brain, consciousness and neurological science. Andrew’s powerful voice creates a buffer between his academic achievements and his life of misfortune. Andrew’s Brain also provides some comical and powerful passages on the President, Chaingang and Rumbum. Demonstrating their somewhat “sinister” characteristics and their legacy on one of the most crucial moments in American History.