ANDREW’S BRAIN by E.L. Doctorow

Book Quote:

“Perhaps we long for something like the situation these other creatures have— the ants, the bees— where the thinking is outsourced.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (JAN 9, 2014)

This was a wonderfully easy book to get into and enjoy; now I just need to figure out what it was about! Although there are no quotation marks, it seems to be a dialogue: a man whom we later identify as Andrew talking to what appears to be some kind of psychologist, someone who studies the mind. Andrew himself is a cognitive neuroscientist; he studies the physical brain. On one level, Doctorow seems to be examining the distinction between the two, as though Andrew’s mind were behaving in ways that Andrew’s brain alone cannot explain.

There are strange discrepancies in the narrative at first. Andrew refers to himself mainly in the first person, but occasionally in the third; is this perhaps his brain talking, rather than the man himself? He hears voices. He relates the same event in different time-frames and different ways, yet he insists he is not dreaming. At times, the narrative tricks reminded me of Paul Auster, though the more bizarre elements here do little more than ruffle the surface of an apparently straightforward story.

Andrew seems to leave a wake of disaster behind him. At the beginning, he tells of being at his wits’ end, giving his divorced first wife the baby he had with his late second wife because he cannot look after her alone. We will soon hear about the tragedy that led to the divorce. The tragedy of the second wife’s death will take over half the book to emerge, but we will get there through a glowing love story that is the greatest source of joy in Doctorow’s intriguing novel, and the place where Andrew comes most completely to life as an individual.

I won’t say much more about the plot. It is important, I think, that Doctorow does not at first tell us how long ago these events happened, who the psychologist is, or where Andrew is now. All these things will be revealed towards the end, as the book, now broken down into ever-shorter sections, impinges on real events in recent American history — but impinges upon them in increasingly unreal ways. There is an element of near-fantasy at the end, which makes me wonder whether Andrew is intended as a real person after all?

There is some evidence for this. One topic that interests Andrew is the question of “group brain” — the communal consciousness that gives meaning to a colony of ants, or enables a flock of birds to fly and wheel as one. He wonders if this applies to humans, too: if there is such a thing, for instance, as a “government brain,” or if a presidential election does not represent something more than a simple majority at the ballot box, but a kind of national wish-fulfillment? Doctorow has often used his novels to examine and critique specific periods in American history. At the end of this one, I was just beginning to think of Andrew less as the weirdly unreliable narrator of the first part, less even as the fortunate lover of the middle section, but perhaps simply as a symbol for the changes in the national psyche over the decade or so during which the main action takes place?

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 18 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House (January 14, 2014)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
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January 9, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Reading Guide, Unique Narrative, y Award Winning Author

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