Putting the grey matter to work

doctorow

Andrew’s Brain, E L Doctorow, Little Brown.

E L Doctorow, author of The Book of Daniel and The March, trades in historical fiction. Whether they be espionage figures, gangsters, military figures or jazz musicians, Doctorow takes inspiration for his characters from the inexhaustible mine that is American history, much like his nearest comparison, Don DeLillo. Andrew’s Brain initially seems like a more personal, intimate story than Doctorow’s previous works. It could be a theatre performance – there is Andrew, the narrator, telling his story to an unnamed psychologist who occasionally interrupts the narrative. Andrew is something of a magnet for trouble, whether it be the trivial, through clumsiness, or the tragic, such as his marriage breakdown and death of a baby. But history, in the public sense, eventually intrudes as he tells the story of his second wife’s death in the Twin Towers’ collapse on September 11, and his dark journey eventually takes him to the White House and George W Bush’s farcical ‘War on Terror’.

Andrew is a cognitive scientist, a student of how the brain creates the mind, and the narrative shows off Doctorow’s research into neuroscience, as Andrew spouts off about the tricks the mind plays, and how his science excludes God and metaphysics (supposedly), replacing free will and transcendence with the blind Darwinian process of networks of firing neurons responding to stimuli in set ways programmed over millennia. Like many disturbed yet intelligent people, he uses irony and knowledge to deflect attention from central truths. He is smart, smug and also rather wordy. He speaks with somewhat implausible literariness, but this is beside the point. He is a character like DeLillo’s, who are largely mouthpieces for DeLillo’s ideas about the modern world.

In Andrew’s Brain we see the meeting of the two Americas: the intellectual and the athletic, unthinking one. There are those who go around blithely assuming free will, and those who put their grey matter to work to understand that the mind is a mere secretion of automatons. Like the lead character in The Book of Daniel, or Chip Lambert in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, educated Andrew is not particularly likeable. In his case, it seems Doctorow is suggesting attributing everything simply to the brain’s circuitry is a recipe for Nietzschean madness, but whether Doctorow thinks this is due to our society creating outsiders of those who question our stubbornly clung-onto notions of transcendent meaning, or the fact that transcendent meaning is a real, human necessity, it’s hard to say.

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