Reviews > Published on January 17th, 2014

Bookshots: 'Andrew's Brain' by E.L. Doctorow

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


Andrew's Brain

Who wrote it?

E.L. Doctorow, the man behind such novels as RagtimeBilly Bathgate, and The March.

In fifty years, this may be one of those kinda-sorta career-defining novels.

Plot in a box:

The title isn't misleading. Andrew's Brain is told entirely in conversation, from the perspective of the titular character as he relates stories, memories, images, thoughts and ideas from his life to what I assume is a psychologist of some sort, known only as Doc.

Invent a new title for this book:

The Art of Unconstrained Emotions

Read this if you liked:

Edgar Allan Poe, Albert Camus, psychology, neuroscience, little people, scratching your head and wondering if anything around you is actually real.

Meet the book’s lead:

Andrew, a self-deprecating cognitive scientist with a penchant for young women, cynicism, and talking in the third person.  

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

Leo, The Great, in an Oscar-winning turn.

Setting: Would you want to live here?

In a shrink's office? In someone else's head? In prison? In a computer? Hmm. Yeah, sure, why not.

What was your favorite sentence?

And just now, loud as a clap of thunder, a poor dumb gull riding the winds has bashed his head against the windowpane. I exchange looks with his glazed eye as he slides a smeared red funnel down the snow on my window.

The Verdict:

Yes, this is not the E.L. Doctorow you know. Don't bug out, though, okay? I mean, the dude is 83 and has won or been nominated for every major fiction award since his career began in 1960. Let's cut him some slack, yeah?

Really, you should. Because Andrew's Brain is — oh, I'm trying not to overreact here, believe me, but... — in fifty years, this may be one of those kinda-sorta career-defining novels.

I know, I know. RagtimeBilly BathgateThe March! Dude's got chops. Dude's got a shelf full of BOSS. But the great thing about what Doctorow's done before is that he can take chances now. Andrew's Brain is most definitely a chance. I'm glad he took it.

This Andrew, this guy with the brain, he's such a bitch, honestly. Guy blames himself for every damn thing that's gone wrong in his life, in the lives of those around him, hell, in the world at large, it seems. I'm probably exaggerating — am exaggerating, but only slightly — but this guy is depression personified. Not the kind of depression that leads to suicide; the kind of depression that leads to being a cynical asshole who has serious issues with the way humanity has evolved into a big, steaming pile of what-the-fuck.

Andrew has excuses, though. He's had a life full of bad experiences. He suffered through the death of his first child (totally his fault), the demise of his marriage (kind of his fault), and the death of a lover half his age who also birthed his second child, who he then leaves with his ex because he fears he can't be an adequate father. After all this, he finds himself teaching high school and then working in the White House before winding up detained somewhere undergoing psychological treatment.


OK, cool, because now you should know that Andrew is completely unreliable. UNRE-FUCKING-LIABLE. Up front, you learn he calls himself Andrew the Pretender. And he says things like "Pretending is the brain's work" and "I can't trust anyone these days, least of all myself." And then you can't help but wonder if what Andrew says, what he sees, or what he's experienced is even real at all.

But you'll be OK with that. I was, because, really, I deal with that every day. And so do you. We're all unreliable narrators, and so is everyone around us.

Either way, Andrew's Brain, on top of being another of those head-scratching mindfucks — why do I keep signing up for these? — is funny, playful, thought-provoking, disturbing, sly, and just plain different. The fact that this came from Doctorow's brain still blows mine. It's a worthy entry into his catalogue, even if you're left at your leisure to put the pieces together.

That's what brains are for though, right?

About the author

Ryan is currently at work on his first novel while also prepping the launch of a podcast called "the 45 minute radio hour."

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