Books such as Andrew’s Brain immediately present reviewers with a dilemma: does the fact that the author’s bestsellers run into double digits (as indeed do his writing awards) entitle a work to a certain measure of preliminary respect? The easy answer to this query is ‘yes’, although I leave it up to the individual reader to decide whether this affirmative response is a fair one or not. Among other honours, E. L. Doctorow holds the distinction of being a triple winner of the National Book Critics Circle award, and the point that Andrew’s Brain was shortlisted for the wildly prestigious Man Booker prize is enough to merit that the book gets noted, if not actually acclaimed.
A tortured and somewhat tortuous story of a highly intelligent but erratic cognitive scientist, the novel grabs one’s attention almost from its very commencement. The protagonist appears to be confiding part of his life-story to a psychiatrist; Doctorow’s narrative moves smoothly and rather cleverly between dialogue, internal reflection, and straightforward narrative description. Andrew’s personal anguish results primarily from the loss of loved ones — first a child by his first wife, and then his second wife herself. He holds himself irrevocably responsible for the death of his daughter, and one realises that Doctorow’s deep moral intentions are meant to revolve around the unanswerable question of precisely how much responsibility a parent should consistently bear for being unable to save his or her child’s life. Andrew’s guilt is underpinned by personal negligence, but the novelist implicitly sympathises with his position by underscoring that his first wife, Martha, blames herself for the child’s death just as forcefully as does her husband. Much of the first half of the book centres, therefore, on issues concerning atonement and emotional release. The reader, in spite of his or her personal inclinations, is repeatedly involved in attempting to judge this wretched set of parents, and perhaps it is in this smart manipulation of our feelings that Doctorow’s mature creative genius is most strongly visible.
Therefore it comes as something of a relief, if not exactly a trite surprise, that Andrew’s second wife, Briony, conveniently dies midway into the book, leaving him with a healthy baby girl. He chooses to pass the ‘replacement-child’ on to Martha whom everyone, (including the author, reader, and Andrew himself) regards as the better, and more fit parent. Outraged readers may regard this as tantamount to flushing a valid plot down the toilet, but to do so would be missing the main point of the novel. Doctorow’s main aims appear to involve the creation of a remarkably authentic stream of consciousness by means of which the identity of his protagonist can be allowed to flourish and develop, unimpeded by the machinations of plot and description alike.
The psychiatrist, who disappears halfway through the book, gets replaced by a far more interesting character — Andrew’s roommate from his Yale days, the president of the United States. With this turn of events the book descends from the sublime to the ridiculous, but it is testament to Doctorow’s authorial control that one remains as engaged with Andrew’s comic destiny as one was with his tragic one. Like the wily Charles Dickens, Doctorow rarely makes the mistake of writing about realms of which he is unaware. Thus his descriptions of Andrew’s ‘purgatorial’ academic days at a small college in California are as authentic in tone as his canny sketches of all the president’s men, including Chaingang and Rumbum (skimpily disguised fictional versions of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld). At its finest points Doctorow’s satire is reminiscent of the brilliant madness of A Clockwork Orange, rendered all the more intense because one appreciates over the course of the book that regardless of all his solipsism, Andrew counts as a thoroughbred intellectual surrounded by powerful buffoons.
An undeniable social misfit, and a true rebel without a cause, Doctorow’s luckless hero provokes our unflagging interest, though not perhaps our deepest sympathy. The latter is reserved for Martha who suffers due to the loss of her child as only a cruelly bereaved mother can, and some of the novel’s most passionate language is rightly accorded towards drawing our attention to this. A lesser novelist may not have been able to pull off quite as many literary twists and capers as Doctorow has in this book; but then a less experienced novelist may wisely not have attempted such a feat. Touches of literary finesse abound in the novel — one of the most startling being that Andrew’s ‘normal’ second wife Briony was born to a couple of dwarves, who had a relatively respectable circus career in Europe before both retired in the United States. As indicated earlier, the novel moves seamlessly between narrative and reflection, and it is during a particularly poignant moment that Andrew wishes he could read to both his children as his hero, the novelist Mark Twain, was wont to do with his daughters. Perhaps ignorance would be bliss at points such as these, but for those who know further details of Twain’s life, it becomes genuinely painful to have to remember that his infant son died of diphtheria caused by Twain’s own negligence. That Doctorow does not need to even mention this fact reminds one of how skilled the author is at using references and allusions throughout the book.
In aggregate, Andrew’s Brain is a fast-moving and engaging read, and a surprisingly good introduction to salient elements of Doctorow’s style, though it was written late in his career. My educated guess is that it didn’t receive the Booker prize primarily because it simply didn’t deserve it. This is largely due to the book’s heavy, almost obsessive reliance on ‘shock-value’, a deliberate technique that places the novel in a realm beyond the ordinary, but does the novel the disservice of detracting from its being a truly strong work of art. Nevertheless, a book does not need to be a major prizewinner in order to emotionally move its audience, or count as sound literature. Andrew’s Brain succeeds in doing both.
The reviewer is Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration
By E. L. Doctorow
Random House, US