Andrew's Brain

Author E.L., Doctorow
Year 2014
First published 2014
Number of pages 224
Edition First US hardback
ISBN 9781400068814
Keywords neuroscience, scientist main character, mad, mentally ill scientist, cognitive science, psychology (experimental), FMS Library Book


E. L. Doctorow’s latest novel is a lyrical, funny, and profound contemplation on how the brain constructs reality. And about the fallacies of being a brain. Formally, it is a dialogue between Andrew, who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, and some obscure “Doc.” Like any decent psychiatrist¬--and we have every reason to suspect that he or she is one--Doc asks many questions but never reveals or explains anything. Are we in a clinic or a private practice? Or is this all just happening inside Andrew’s head? At one point, Andrew takes a vacation on a Norwegian fjord, so it’s clear that he’s not held in custody. But then again, he might just be making it all up. “We’re all pretenders, Doctor, even you. Especially you. Why are you smiling? Pretending is the brains’s work. It’s what it does. The brain can even pretend not to be itself.” (p. 103) Andrew may be a pretender, but he is not a show-off. His problem is he seems to attract calamity. As a boy he was walking his beloved dachshund on Washington Square when suddenly a hawk came down, grabbed the dog, lifting it up into the air, and killed it. Years later, after he married Martha and had a child with her, he accidentally administered the wrong medication and the baby died. His marriage broke up. Later, as a college cognitive science teacher, Andrew fell for the bright student Briony, who was then killed in the 9/11 attacks. Left alone with their baby, Willa, Andrew goes back to his first wife Martha, and this is where the novel starts. But Martha runs off with Willa as compensation for her lost child, leaving Andrew with her new husband, an opera singer. Sound a bit exaggerated? Perhaps. But as we know, life can be stranger than fiction. Especially with the brains we have. This is where the science comes in: Andrew, the unreliable narrator, is reflecting on his relation to his own neural self. And he has made up his mind: “We have to be wary of our brains,” he says. “They make our decisions before we make them. They lead us to still waters. The renounceth free will. (...) But don’t think about these things, because it won’t be you anyway doing the thinking. Just follow your star. Live in the presumptions of the socially constructed life. Abhor science. Sort of believe in God. Put your failings behind you. Present your self-justifications to the bathroom mirror.” (p. 177) Andrew’s life takes yet another odd twist when an old roommate from his student days at Yale makes a brilliant career––and is elected president of the United States. Andrew tells his Doc how this old friend appointed him “Director of the White House Office of Neurological Research”. But after a few weeks, Andrew quits the job because he can’t stand the humbug on war and chemical weapons he has to hear from the president’s advisors, “Rumbum” and “Chaingang.” It all ends with Andrew madly doing a hand-stand in the Oval Office (“I was the first who ever did that!”), and being led away by security officers. So what do we make of that? Difficult to say. Let me pretend I know: Andrew is a dislocated mind. He doesn’t know his place, and he’s worried. The trouble is, as a cognitive scientist he knows too much about the workings of the brain. If we took what brain research tells us personally, we couldn’t help but develop dissociate personalities. For we cannot be our brains and see what they’re doing at the same time. If we tried, as Andrew does, we’d be in trouble. --FMS (Steve Ayan)