Andrew’s Brain is not for the light-hearted. “I can tell you about my friend Andrew, the cognitive scientist,” American author Doctorow begins. “But it’s not pretty. 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.” And from then on, in this slim, 200 page novel of epic proportions, clarity turns quickly into chaos.
In lyrical prose, with stark, grim humor, Doctorow takes us into the mind of a devastated man, strangely doomed to destroy all he holds dear. Put simply, he’s a hopelessly inept, well-meaning killer — a recipe for disaster. Andrew breaks toes, lets his dachshund get eaten alive before his eyes, causes car accidents, and even poisons his own child, and as the story develops his inadvertent crimes only grow in severity and scale. As he relates the tragedy of his life, we follow him in a journey across America — from New York to California and from Pennsylvania to Washington D.C. It’s a long and difficult journey, too, and Andrew isn’t afraid to digress. In between tales of dead children and dead wives, Andrew veers off on philosophical ramblings about truth, fate, and memory. “How can I think about my brain when it’s my brain doing the thinking?”, he asks at one point. "So is this brain pretending to be me thinking about it? I can’t trust anyone these days, least of all myself.” Clearly, Andrew is the very definition of an unreliable narrator; he is as confused and as haunted as readers are likely to be left.
Who is Andrew? Does he even exist? And what are we supposed to make of this “mysteriously generated consciousness”? Few answers are offered, and none are concrete. We know nothing about Andrew’s current location, or even the identity of the character that occasionally interrupts his monologue(a government psychologist, perhaps?). To make things even more confusing, the story isn’t told in chronological order, and the narration shifts randomly between first and third person. Near the resolution, the story inexplicably turns from introspection to a political sketch of 9/11, and Doctorow goes off on tangents about Mark Twain.We are given a trail of crumbs that leads, it appears, to only more chaos.
“Is that cognitive science?” the psychologist asks, halfway through this chronicle of misery. Andrew’s answer is typical of him: “Not really. It’s more like suffering.” But for all its flaws, it’s difficult to say something as straightforward about the book itself, a work that is alternately painful and quietly consoling.
There is no doubt that Doctorow is a masterful writer, and that the story itself is compelling. Yes, Andrew’s Brain is exasperating — but it’s also lyrically, beautifully written, and, if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, even moving. As a study of psychological trauma, it comes across as cryptic and uncertain; as a political analysis, it falls awfully flat. The author fails to successfully merge multiple genres, and to maintain a balance between ambiguity and clarity. But there are moments of brilliance in this book: its originality and aesthetic is admirable, and Andrew’s journey from despair to redemption is clumsily, but touchingly unfolded.
Doctorow’s new novel is as mystifying, and as mesmerizing, as the human mind.
This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of UNIT-E. It was written by Chelsea Liu, a student at the International School of Beijing.
UNIT-E was founded in the spring of 2010 with the aim of establishing a non-profit, student-run magazine for international students in Beijing. Staffed by current students from a range of international schools, the magazine provides an amalgam of cultural tidbits, fragments of Beijing student life, and a broad spectrum of unique perspectives from a diverse group of young adults.
Photo: Courtesy of Publisher