In the Land of the Free Brain
By E. L. Doctorow
Random House, 2014
Metaphor follows an A = B structure, where A and B are two disparate, unequal elements. The equation depends on its reader’s ability to find (or imagine where lacking?) a quality present in both; otherwise, with each component merely itself, the logic collapses.
In his new novel, Andrew’s Brain, E. L. Doctorow sets human consciousness equal to America. Go.
I’m not being entirely fair. There are indeed operative, worthwhile parts in Doctorow’s cerebral experiment; the real problems are the synapses between them. Let’s start with what works.
Cognitive scientist Andrew appears to be a psychiatric patient talking to his psychiatrist “Doc,” telling a strange life story of mobile meanings and fluctuating possibilities of redemption. He is guilty, having accidentally killed his first child, whom he had with his first wife, Martha. Because of a druggist’s error, he had, in good faith, fed the wrong medicine to his infant daughter.
Following infanticide, no matter how unintentional, wifely forgiveness and self-forgiveness are out of the question. But as readers, we forgive him. We feel for him, with that feeling that is the stuff of good novels: identification, the understanding that circumstances so often trump character in directing our lives, we think: it could have happened to anyone. That is, until we learn that Andrew invariably causes accidents wherever he goes. As a child, he was responsible for a fatal car crash; then he failed to save his pet dog from being murdered by a hawk; in the army, he ruined the career of his platoon sergeant by falling asleep; he broke the jaw of a fellow professor, then the foot of her husband; he drops everything, ruins everything. And while those in his proximity perish, he always escapes unscathed. As Martha’s second husband says, his “well-meaning, gentle, kindly disposed, charming ineptitude is the modus operandi of the deadliest of killers.”
After the divorce, Andrew exiles himself to a small college in the mountains, where he takes a low-paying job teaching elementary Brain Science to uncomplicated, untroubled undergraduates. There he meets and falls in love with one of his students, Briony, and we know from Andrew’s disposition that her fate is sealed. Much of the novel’s first part is devoted to the memory of this wonderfully Romanticized, near faultless creature, “a slender wheat-haired beauty with the fairest skin, as if a property of it was sunlight.” She’s a girl from a “shadowless” place, capable of absolving guilt. With her, Andrew feels like a different person: present, hopeful of the future, disowning the horrors of his past. When Doc complains that he can’t get a clear “fix” on the phantom Briony, even as first wife Martha comes through as a stable, believable personality, Andrew retorts, with a Nietzschean echo: “She was a younger person, Briony, still becoming herself […] Martha was being, Briony was becoming. What kind of shrink are you who has to be told this?” Briony is a pleasure to read about, particularly in contrast to our somber narrator: “…how far apart we were, not only in age and social position but in how we thought of our lives or, more exactly, our expectations of what life offered according to its nature as we understood it.” It doesn’t matter that she can’t possibly be the “Revelation” Andrew remembers: that’s the experiential reality of love and its memory.
Our professor, the unwilling but eternal harbinger of doom, brings Briony to live happily with him in New York: she dies during 9/11, her body never recovered. As prepared as we are, her death is a hit — one of the last moments here that’s still made of that stuff of good novels. Andrew puts up fliers around the city: “She was in that community of the last seen, their names and addresses, that they were loved. Please call. She was in that community of what was left of them.” They had had a child; he brings their baby to Martha’s door, seeking help. Martha takes possession of the infant as a replacement, and closes the door on him.
Why exactly is Andrew revealing his life story to a doctor? His motives for narration remain a mystery until the very end of the novel. After all, he doesn’t hide his incredulity about the psychotherapeutic exercise, which he believes insufficiently scientific (“Doc, you’re in trouble with your talking cure…Trust me, [when the study of the genome progresses] you’ll be on unemployment”). Interlocutor Doc, meanwhile, serves as a cross between reader stand-in — tell us more; don’t go off track; do you really expect us to believe that? — and a representative of his profession, conflicting as it does with the neuroscientific perspective (says Andrew, with tantalizing dualism, “Your field is the mind, mine is the brain. Will the twain ever meet?”). Later on, as the reliability of identity and place unravels, the exact nature of their relationship becomes suspect, but for most of the novel, the Andrew/“Doc” pair functions well enough to elicit memories of the former’s life events and contradictory interpretations thereof.
Following in the spirit of his profession, Andrew sees his life through the “lens” of cognitive science. This is a contemporarily philosophical novel; Libet, Crick, Damasio, all referenced if not directly named, are the philosophers for our time. Our subject doesn’t always cope well with the depressing implications of his field: “You’ve got to be brave when you do science. I reacted badly to the publication of experiment demonstrating that the brain can come to a decision seconds before we’re conscious of it.” He boroughs into paradoxical, seemingly defeatist questions like, “How can I think about my brain when it’s my brain doing the thinking? So is this brain pretending to be me thinking about it?” He feel himself to be “outside the realm of psychology,” having “an historic identity” (this last statement giving us a hint of what’s coming). He is trying to eke out some measure of credible “selfhood” and free will in an era that’s all too quick to point out the elements that masquerade as both. Andrew is a cognitive scientist “thinking” — a “mysteriously generated consciousness” all too aware of its own illusionary nature in the scientific sense. He admits to hearing voices, or really just the meanings of words, spoken without sound by different people, a move that adds to Doctorow’s account of the mind’s tricks and inaccuracies, its internalizations and projections, its constant internal dialogue, its multiplicity. And let’s not forget that this character is a self-reflective “illusion” put together out of rhetorical narrative techniques. Postmodern metafiction = structure of consciousness. A = B. Doctorow is working with clear metaphor.
But then the novel abruptly shifts into historico-political-fantasy. After the tragedy of 9/11, Andrew is recruited to work for his old roommate from Yale, who just happens to be the President of the United States (never named, but with his invading “the wrong country” and colleagues “Chaingang” and “Rumbum,” we’re pretty sure about his identity). For purely Machiavellian reasons, the President names him the director of the White House Office of Neurological Research. Andrew accepts, declaring himself to possess “a keen political awareness,” suddenly resolved “to step into history, to act.”
From musings on the brain, the self, love and guilt, we move to absurd grabs for power of the three main figures within the upper echelons of the executive branch. We learn that Andrew’s “old buddy” has mood swings because “his war was not going well.” We listen to Andrew claim, that when their photographs were aligned, they were “look-alikes. There was almost a familial resemblance.” We visit the Lincoln Bedroom, meet wealthy donors, look at a copy of the Gettysburg address.
What we’re never quite sure of is why. Because it’s the executive branch and as theorists of consciousness, we should also consider issues of internal agency and executive control? Or, since consciousness is always about context, we should think of how we merge identities with those around us, those who lead us, those who represent us? Or is it that, as Andrew killed his infant daughter by accidentally and lovingly feeding her the wrong medicine, America can certainly be accused of lovingly administering poison with the most self-righteous of intentions? Like our brain, constantly “pretending” to be a self (“pretending is the brain’s work”), is America the Great Pretender? In the end, when Andrew is being held hostage (indeed “it’s a kind of jail, the brain’s mind”), should we consider how Bush and friends are holding us hostage? Are we holding ourselves hostage? Andrew’s final situation — “no lawyer has been appointed to me and I’m being held without trial and it’s already been indefinitely” — is all too pertinent a tragedy and unquestionably deserving of authorial attention. What’s inexplicable is why it’s brought in to wrap up the last few pages of a novel primarily concerned with unrelated topics.
Though Andrew’s job for the administration is to report on worldwide neurological developments, which means that cognitive theory keeps getting interwoven with the narrative, the second part of the novel is a blatant genre switch under the pretense that the brain science “lens” guarantees genre maintenance. We hear about Mind Reading, artificial intelligence, and Edelman’s theory of neural Darwinism, but now in the context of confusing political allegory, not in the interpretation of human lives. Perhaps the genre switch is intentional, with realism and satire in “tension” with one another? Or complementing one another like the two cerebral hemispheres? Or I could be completely wrong about everything, and my attempts to make “sense” of this incredible, seemingly unbridgeable disjunction merely point to the cognitive need we have to make meaning, to bundle elements, to tie fragments into a narrative. Maybe it’s the author’s “thought experiment,” similar to the prisoners’ dilemma kind that Andrew runs on his White House buddies. In that case, joke’s on (me) the reader!
Towards the end of the novel, Andrew asks his supposed therapist, “if my mind goes can the country be far behind?” The other answers, “So you’re saying there’s a connection?” Andrew’s Brain explores beautifully the “going” of the mind, not as successfully the “going” of the country, and sets up a metaphorical connection between the two that’s tenuous at best. In other words, the superbly written first half of this novel was risked hazardously, if not fatally, for the sake of experiment. Maybe an author of Doctorow’s level, who has so many great stories up his sleeve, can afford to sacrifice one on an experimental whim. Still, it feels like a shame.
Y. Greyman is a freelance writer living in New York, working on a PhD in literature at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaching composition at Brooklyn College.