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E.L. Doctorow, the man behind such novels as Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, and The March.
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.
The Art of Unconstrained Emotions
Edgar Allan Poe, Albert Camus, psychology, neuroscience, little people, scratching your head and wondering if anything around you is actually real.
Andrew, a self-deprecating cognitive scientist with a penchant for young women, cynicism, and talking in the third person.
Leo, The Great, in an Oscar-winning turn.
In a shrink's office? In someone else's head? In prison? In a computer? Hmm. Yeah, sure, why not.
"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."
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. Ragtime! Billy Bathgate! The 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?
Bookshots review written for LitReactor by Ryan Peverly