Husband-and-Wife Book Club: E.L. Doctorow’s Andrew’s Brain

My wife Kelly Braffet and I took turns reading a single galley of E.L. Doctorow’s new novel Andrew’s Brain. By the time we were finished, the galley was creased and cracked, and we were kind of sad. That said, there’s a particular pleasure to being able to immediately discuss a novel the way that you do when you leave a movie theater. What follows is a lightly edited version of our exchange, which is (much) more akin to a discussion over dinner than a traditional review, and should undoubtedly be taken as such, for better or worse. — Owen King

KELLY BRAFFET: I want to start by saying that I was incredibly excited to get an early copy of this book. I read Ragtime for the first time this year, and loved it: It felt so effortless, one of those books that seems to exist independently of any involvement from the author. Which I’m fully aware is bullshit, make no mistake—a book that good took unspeakable amounts of effort—but the fact that it felt that way, to me, indicates a master at work.

So, coming off that amazing ride, I went into Andrew’s Brain ready to have my brain melted by sheer literary accomplishment. And soon enough, my brain did start to feel like it was melting—but not for the reasons I’d hoped. Ragtime is about history, and racism, and determination, and the mutability of the American identity. Andrew’s Brain is about a neuroscientist named Andrew (that much, at least, is clear) who is relating the events of his life, from an unnamed vantage point and location, to an unnamed listener/interrogator who may or may not be his psychiatrist, with several digressions into the difference between the mind and the brain, between consciousness and concreteness, between perception and reality.

Andrew’s brain, the fictional organ, tells a great many stories, but Andrew’s Brain, the novel, seems reluctant to commit to any story in particular. While I admit that I tend to be a pretty literal reader (I like plots), I’m also more than willing to meet a book halfway, and wait for it to reveal itself. With Andrew’s Brain, I feel like I’m still waiting, like I met the book halfway but got stood up. This book, in short, made me feel stupid. I’m not sure if the book failed to accomplish its goals, or if I never understood what those goals were.

OWEN KING: I’m awfully sorry to say that we’re nearly on the same page here. I expected big things from Andrew’s Brain, and unfortunately, I don’t believe it does much more than express the author’s rage at the current state of the American experiment. There are some choice bits scattered throughout the novel—on Twain, on Boris Godunov, on a community of dwarf performers—but even these feel random, as if Doctorow had a drawer in his house where he’d been keeping unexplored fascinations, and he suddenly decided to empty it out.

Throughout his life, Andrew, our titular neuroscientist, moves from one catastrophe to another. As a boy, he slides out into the street, causing a car to crash and the driver of the car to be killed; during his first marriage, he inadvertently poisons his infant daughter; during his second marriage, his wife is killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11. What there is to say for Andrew’s Brain is here in this thread, in the story of a man who reels from disaster to disaster. It’s a version of Job, and it raises an obvious, but intrinsically evocative question: Doesn’t such horrible, improbable luck—the car passing by at that moment, the pharmacist mislabeling that bottle, his wife running near the WTC on that morning—imply the existence of a higher power? But Doctorow doesn’t seem particularly interested in the character of Andrew; he never coalesces psychologically.

The novel addresses the accidental death of Andrew’s infant daughter early on. It is nearly impossible to imagine a more guilt-inducing, soul-crushing occurrence, and I was never remotely convinced that Andrew had suffered it. He makes a blatant attempt to disassociate himself from the tragedy by, at times, talking about himself to his psychiatrist/interrogator in the third-person:

“How did she die?”

“I don’t want to talk about it. [thinking] I can tell you that after killing the baby with Martha, Andrew took a low-paying adjunct professorship at a small state college out west that he’d never heard of.”

As indicated above, he takes literal flight from the scene of the tragedy. However, the event evaporates from his perspective for huge stretches of the novel. How is Andrew not consumed, haunted to his core by this loss and his culpability? This is a seismic problem for Doctorow. Compare it, say, to his careful, multi-faceted portrait of Daniel in The Book of Daniel, and you’ll be shocked that the same author wrote both books.

Late in the story, Andrew finds himself employed by a nameless former roommate and now POTUS, who is obviously George W. Bush. Bush nicknames Andrew, “Android.” We know that Andrew isn’t without feeling, though, because he has reacted, albeit to unconvincing extent, to the earlier trauma.

Andrew’s role is very much a role. He is, I suspect, intended as a placeholder for “America” as E.L. Doctorow sees it, blithely fucking up everything he/it encounters. I certainly have some sympathy for the viewpoint, but Andrew doesn’t live. You feel the author’s hand pushing him from episode to episode, arranging him in situations and places in order to fulfill the metaphor and shoehorn in the various fascinations I mentioned earlier.

Am I being too harsh here? Did any of this work for you?

KB: Well, there was certainly some lovely writing that worked for me, on a sentence-by-sentence level. His description of the Wasatch Mountains has stayed with me (“an alliance of venerable powers, trail-scarred, implacable with snow that could kill, or carelessly alive with spring foliage in all the pale shades of green or blue evergreen”), and I love this first description of Briony, who turns out to be his second wife:

A girl in a long summer frock down to her ankles. And she wore running shoes. She had delicate freckles under her eyes, and her face seemed pale with sunlight even as she stood in the shade.

With those descriptions, Doctorow catches not just image but spirit, and it’s at those moments that his innate skill shines through. As a whole, though, I felt like the book was a collection of story climaxes, without the context or emotional development that make those climaxes powerful for the reader. The death of Andrew’s first daughter, his casual abandonment of his second daughter with his first wife, the whole 9/11 sequence: these are all scenes that, in another novel, would take center stage, and serve as some sort of culmination. They’d be meaningful; they’d say something. In Andrew’s Brain, they just… happen. Even Andrew himself doesn’t seem very affected by them. It feels very much like the kind of story new writers are drawn to, where Every Possible Dramatic Thing Happens. I know Doctorow can do better than this; he’s clearly doing it deliberately.

I think you’re right that Andrew is a stand-in for America itself, not exactly meaning any harm but just sort of blundering from one careless catastrophe to the next. He never learns from his mistakes, his character is never altered, and while he feels a vague sense of guilt and shows a vague awareness that he’s often the “bad guy,” he also never takes responsibility for any of the bad things that happen around him. Whether that works as allegory depends on your politics, but for me, a bigger problem is that the allegorical level is the only one we get. My favorite allegorical literary works—like Spenser’s The Faerie Queen or Steinbeck’s East of Eden—are certainly made richer by their allegorical underpinnings, but they’re also good stories. That’s where I think Andrew’s Brain fails. As an allegory, it might be fantastic, but as a novel, it falls flat.

Actually, I’m not entirely sure that it is a fantastic allegory. If we’re reading this correctly, and Andrew is supposed to be America, then it’s a flat portrait, and an utterly condemning one. I have trouble with Doctorow’s reduction of our entire society to one stumbling, narcissistic pedant. A lot of us might be stumbling, a lot of us might be narcissists, but a lot of us are also trying our best to improve the world around us. Andrew’s Brain ignores those people, and in fact ignores the very possibility that they could exist.

And if we are going to treat the novel as an allegory, then what do we make of the endless ruminations on consciousness vs. self vs. place? In one of Andrew’s lectures to his class, he says, “If consciousness exists without the world, it is nothing, and if it needs to exist, it is still nothing.” This seems tantamount to saying that our society sucks and we’re nothing without our society, which is just about as bleak a worldview as a person could possibly have. I’ve got nothing against bleak fiction, but this brings to mind your point earlier about this novel existing solely to express the ideas Doctorow’s been keeping in his desk drawer all these years, one of which is his rage at, as you put it, “the state of the American experiment.”

OK: I’m not too troubled by the bleakness of the worldview. I wish I was, though, because that would mean that some of Doctorow’s intent was reaching me.

When Andrew arrives, finally, at the seat of power, he is given the duty of “lecturing on neurological developments around the world” to Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. These three men are exactly who you would expect them to be. Bush, for instance, has a “formidable mother” and a father with “a limp distracted handshake.” He “would want to have coffee just to sit around and talk about anything except being president.” Andrew speculates that Bush’s habit of nicknaming is like “a brand such as your burn into a steer, because it was also a means of letting you know he owned you, knew what you were in essence.” To get his jollies, Bush makes Cheney and Rumsfeld (“Chaingang” and “Rumbum”) participate in a cognitive science test, and they respond as venally as you’d assume.

The entire sequence has a hectoring quality. What the reader needs is to see is something new in Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld; otherwise, why bother? It’s preaching to the choir, and I would know, because I’m a member of that choir.

I have the greatest respect for E.L. Doctorow and he does deserve credit for having the courage with Andrew’s Brain to make such a radical departure in form and approach. I am hugely disappointed to have to say how little I enjoyed it. So I hope it’s all right if I end on a more upbeat note, pointing now, briefly, to The Book of Daniel. It is a masterpiece, beautifully imagined on every level—psychologically, visually, thematically. I recommend you read that.

KB: Or Ragtime. Ragtime is fantastic.

Kelly Braffet is the author of the novels Save Yourself, Josie and Jack, and Last Seen Leaving. Her writing has been published in The Fairy Tale Review, Post Road, and several anthologies. She is married to the author Owen King.

Owen King is the author of the novel Double Feature. His writing has appeared in Grantland, the Los Angeles Review of Books, One Story, and Prairie Schooner, among other publications. He is the husband of the novelist Kelly Braffet.