Andrew’s Brain

Andrew’s Brain
E.L. Doctorow
© 2014
200 pages (hardcover)

I’ve noticed a trend in books I’ve read recently: characters that have emotional, behavioral, or social disorders.

  • There is Rachel in Player One, who has prosopagnosia (the inability to differentiate faces), “multiple structural anomalies on her limbic system that affect [her] personality,” mild OCD, autism spectrum disorder, and “a lesion in [her] brain’s right hemisphere creates tone-blindness that hinders [her] ability to appreciate what you call humour, irony, passion, and God.”
  • And Don Tilman from The Rosie Project, who is extremely socially awkward and has Asperger’s Syndrome (or some other, unspecified autism spectrum disorder).
  • And Jaz, Summer’s brother in The Thing About Luck, whom people treated like he was invisible and who had gotten three different diagnoses from three different doctors (OCD, ADHD, and PDD-NOS).

I can now add to that list Andrew, the unreliable narrator of Andrew’s Brain.  Andrew is a “freakishly depressive cognitive scientist klutz.”

The book is largely Andrew’s conversations with a person we presume to be his psychiatrist (a man Andrew refers to as “Doc” and whose professionalism and intelligence Andrew often calls into question).  During these conversations, Andrew tells Doc stories and memories about “his friend Andrew.”  Early on, Doc asks Andrew if he is actually “the man you call your friend Andrew, the cognitive scientist,” and Andrew readily admits they are one and the same.  Nevertheless, Andrew continues discussing his memories in the third person, displaying his disassociation with the past.

This disassociation is understandable.  Andrew is the master of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Unwittingly, he leaves tragedy in his wake.  Whether his emotional disassociation is a defense mechanism or a convenient coincidence, we do not know.  But, as he explains it:

As kind as I am, as well-meaning and helpful as I try to be, I have no feelings finally, for good or ill.  In the depths of my being, no matter what happens, I am left cold, impenetrable to remorse, to grief, to happiness, though I can pretend well enough even to the point of fooling myself.  I am trying to say I am finally, terribly, unfeeling.  My soul resides in a still, deep, beautiful, emotionless, calm cold pond of silence.

Whether Andrew is as cold and unfeeling as he claims is one of the book’s many unanswered questions.

Rating: 3/5 💭

One of IKWYSR’s followers and regular commenters, Len, who is himself a book reviewer, mentioned here that Andrew’s Brain was the best book he read last year (he received a pre-publication copy to review).  You can read Len’s 5-star Amazon review here.  In it, he mentions, “I do not belong to any book clubs but this seems to me to be a book club’s dream, one that would create a rich discussion in which it is likely that every member will have a different vision of what it said and what it meant to them.”  I think that part of his assessment is definitely accurate.

The ending is not wrapped up in a pretty little bow; instead you are left to draw your own conclusions.  When I finished it, I immediately thought of a slew of potential book club questions, like:

  • How much of what Andrew said was “real”? Were his stories actual memories?  Were they embellished?  Were they spun out of whole cloth?
  • Was he being forced to speak with Doc or did he choose to speak to Doc?  If it was a choice, what was he hoping to get out of those discussions?
  • Was he actually as unfeeling as he claimed?
  • Is the book simply a political rant?

There are other, spoilery questions that I will omit.  Suffice it to say, this is the kind of book that could be interpreted many, many different ways.  It is thought-provoking and sad.

In addition to being thought-provoking, the book is refreshingly well-written (this, of course, is highly subjective–if you read some of the negative Amazon reviews, you’ll find that the writing style is one of the things about which people frequently complain).  The novel is largely dialogue, bouncing back and forth between Andrew and Doc. Andrew speaks in bursts and streams of consciousness, extended and detailed memories.  Doc tries to guide him, keep him on track, get questions answered that the reader is also wondering.  He interrupts paragraphs of Andrew’s discourses with one-sentence queries. But Andrew has a one-track mind and won’t be corralled.  Doctorow doesn’t use quotation marks, nor does he indicate explicitly who is speaking; context alone provides that information.  It is a style that is occasionally tough to follow but is effective and interesting.

So, why do Len and I diverge in our overall ratings?  I don’t want to give away too much, so I will only say that, about halfway through the novel, it becomes a bit muddled.  What was an interesting look at the brain/mind’s ability to compartmentalize and deal with tragedy becomes enmeshed with a Bush (the Second) political diatribe.  The book’s message(s) got muddied.

And, because “troubled” narrators are so popular these days, if that is central to the book, then it must be done blisteringly well to be effective (Adam Haslett’s characters in You Are Not a Stranger Here are a shining example).  Here, Andrew and his neuroses are only mildly interesting and certainly not engrossing.

Who should read it: book clubbers; people who like open-ended/inconclusory, “thinky” books (as opposed to books where all the loose ends are tied up nicely and neatly).

One final note: Len, thank you for the (indirect) book recommendation!  I welcome and look forward to your rebuttal.

Want to read along with me?  Reviews of these books are coming soon:

  • An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (called “irresistible” by The Wall Street Journal and “a paean to fiction, poetry, and female friendship” by Booklist)
  • One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak (Novak was Ryan Howard on The Office, which he co-wrote and co-produced; this is his first collection of short fiction)
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