E.L. Doctorow's 'Andrew's Brain' is meta-fiction in need of interpretation

E.L. Doctorow has written such classic novels as “Ragtime,” “Billy Bathgate” and “Loon Lake.”
E.L. Doctorow has written such classic novels as “Ragtime,” “Billy Bathgate” and “Loon Lake.” Courtesy photo

“Andrew’s Brain” by E.L. Doctorow (Random House, 200 pages, $26)

The bedrock of fiction is social reality. Mostly, readers expect fictional characters to resemble real people who, though they might be boy wizards, private detectives or time travelers, obey our emotional and cognitive expectations and therefore have something to share, teach or, most important, reveal.

The novel of ideas, on the other hand – something like “War and Peace” – exhales the didactic with particularity, each character usually “standing in” for some important movement or philosophical position.

Finally, lurking in the shadows like a literary bogeyman is postmodern meta-fiction (which in the 1950s and ’60s was called “experimental fiction”), whose practitioners, such as Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo or Paul Auster, chuck traditional narrative, sequence, social reality and verisimilitude in favor of a text that challenges the reader to deconstruct his own experience, abandon normal expectations and listen to other, sometimes simultaneous voices. Along the way, authorship and authority are expected to disappear.

E.L. Doctorow’s new novel, “Andrew’s Brain,” is a meta-construction searching for interpretation the way a “Twilight Zone” driver might search for a non-existent toll-booth exit from an endless, darkened (but traffic-less) freeway.

The Andrew of the title is an ostensible patient to the invisible “Doc,” who listens while Andrew catalogs his woes, trials, disappointments, hopes and achievements – occasionally commenting, keeping things on track or admonishing his “patient,” but always from a quiet corner of the page.

Andrew sees himself as a major screw-up. He has good reason. His first child dies as the result of improper medication in infancy, for which Andrew blames himself. Martha, Andrew’s first wife, leaves him, and Andrew meets and marries Briony, whose parents are perfectly proportioned midgets who reside in a picturesque California town about a hundred miles south of Los Angeles. Sadly, Briony dies at the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, though her football player high school sweetheart survives the buildings’ collapse. Bookended between these puzzling “events” is Andrew’s residence in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains and his tenure as head of George W. Bush’s White House Office of Neurological Research, where Bush and his morally challenged compadres Chaingang and Rumdum act like human spam.

Yes, Andrew is a cognitive scientist, interested in how the biological brain – weighing 3 pounds and composed of billions of cells and synapses, running on chemical energy, readily explainable by science and easily mapped by MRI machines – becomes, in God’s hands, the human soul, striving for immortality or, at least, transcendence. At times during the book, Andrew is perceived, by himself or by circumstance, to be the Pretender, the Holy Fool or, at the White House, the Android, a nickname bestowed by the jocular Bush, with whom Andrew, by happenstance, was roommates at Yale.

Getting off Doctorow’s fancifully constructed meta-freeway isn’t easy. Andrew might well be a real mental patient working through his many neuroses (the Pretender); he might well be the Holy Fool, a seeker of soul-wisdom on the outskirts of Dostoyevsky-ville; he might well be the Android, a disembodied, computer-generated experiment in artificial intelligence.

Doctorow actually gives his reader these choices and throws in a few “(thinking)” pauses to encourage more meta-carnage. Unfortunately, the midgets, politicians, football player boyfriends and opera-singing husbands that populate “Andrew’s Brain” are only cartoons masquerading as ideas. Or, as Dickens would have it in “A Christmas Carol,” they are only blots of mustard or undigested bits of cheese.

At bottom, “Andrew’s Brain” is a discouraging portrait of human nature. “I thought how contention makes us human,” Doctorow writes. “How every form of it is practiced religiously, from gentlemanly debate to rape and pillage, from dirty political attacks to assassinations. Our nighttime street fights outside of bars, our slapping arguments in plush bedrooms, our murderous mutterings in divorce courts. We had parents who beat their children, schoolyard bullies, career-climbing killers in ties and suits” – and so on for a full page, down and down through kick-boxing, Ponzi schemes and war. This is one thing we readers can certainly second.

Doctorow is a great American writer, responsible for classics “Ragtime,” “Billy Bathgate” and “Loon Lake.” “Andrew’s Brain” is, sadly, one of those difficult literary eruptions, a beautifully written bad book. His theme – what makes a brain into a soul – is important. Philosophers have struggled for centuries with the “mind/body problem.”

But a theme, even an important meta-theme, is too little to ask from a writer. What “Andrew’s Brain” lacks is, oddly, a soul.