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To see our content at its best we recommend upgrading if you wish to continue using IE or using another browser such as Firefox, Safari or Google Chrome. EL Doctorow is one of those writers who has lived long enough to accrue the prestige most often conferred posthumously.
Deep questions of identity and consciousness become sidetracked by intrusion of an improbable narrative in Doctorow's latest novel, writes David L.
His finest efforts embody this tension between who we are and who we wish we were, between promise and despair.
Andrew is talking from an undisclosed location, so indistinct it may not be physical: He could be a phantom of his neurology. If all that sounds a bit abstract, it can be, although Andrew's Brain is not exactly a novel of ideas. Bad things happen to him (or around him): the death of a motorist who veered into a tree so as not to hit him while he was sledding, an attack on his dachshund puppy by a red-tailed hawk in Washington Square. These memories raise an enigmatic question: do our experiences shape our personalities or is it the other way around?
This is both a narrative and a philosophical issue - although the paradox is that the more Doctorow tilts towards the former, the more he undermines the book. Part of the idea is to use the novel as a device to talk to us directly since, unlike Andrew, we know what happens next.
Even at its best, Andrew's Brain is lesser Doctorow; it lacks the heft of City of God, which wrestles with similar considerations, or Ragtime, with its exquisite structural unity. Consciousness, Andrew understands, is a conundrum; "Pretending," he tells us, "is the brain's work." What better subject for a novel, which is, after all, an extended game of let's pretend?
To add to the awards showered on his books, Doctorow, 83, has been celebrated for the distinction of his larger service to American letters: he has entered halls of fame and had a medal hung around his neck by the president. I think of The Book of Daniel, narrated by the son of a Julius-and-Ethel-Rosenberg-like couple, or The March, with its panoramic portrait of the chaos of General William Sherman's march.


Rather, it is a memory book, a retrospective in which Andrew looks back over his life to figure out how he came to be where he is. To what extent is Andrew the agent of his disastrous circumstances, and what does it mean that they don't affect him? It's a strange criticism, since fiction is an art of narrative, but the plot he develops in the final third of Andrew's Brain is so unlikely as to seem serendipitous, a radical right turn that runs the novel off the road. Bush administration, which are meant to echo, in some sense, Andrew's indifference and bad luck. We know about Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, the tea party, the further radicalisation of the right.
Still, when it works, it is because of the tension of not knowing, the information we do not have. And yet, it is this - the provocation of being conscious - that Andrew's Brain cannot sustain. Like them, his great subject is consciousness, what he called "a mind in the appalled contemplation of itself." Like them, he is a romantic, a true believer - in the myth of America as a shining city, despite its various and ongoing failures to live up to its better self. Novels can do anything in the dark horrors of consciousness." Inherent in such a statement is the faith that literature can transcend our vagaries, or at least cast our contradictions into stark relief. His is a hard-luck story, marked by a dead child, a dead wife and a series of surrenders and retreats, starting when he was a boy.
To underscore the point, Doctorow establishes a personal connection between the character and the president, as if to indicate that they are cut from the same careless cloth. At the same time, this only distances us from the political allegory Doctorow means to evoke. But "if we figure out how the brain gives us consciousness, we will have learned how to replicate consciousness" - which means "the end of the mythic human world we've had since the Bronze Age. Doctorow's novel "Ragtime," the novelist drew not only praise but fierce condemnation for inflecting historical figures and facts with the spin of fiction.


As his critics then saw it, his genre-blurring book crudely jostled the aim for an objective historical record. It seems too easy, like a joke to which we already know the punch line, as well as a distraction from the very real questions that motivate the first part of the book.
Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.In essence, what Doctorow was suggesting is that the creation of "false document" (that is, fictions) can fashion "larger truths" that "factual truths" can't. His is a historical fiction attentive to the fictions of history, and it has produced such marvellous novels as The Book of Daniel (1971), Ragtime (1975), Billy Bathgate (1989) and The March (2005). On the surface, the work comes off as a mash-up of a philosophical novel and a gothic-hued psychological thriller.At its crux is the meandering, cover-to-cover exchange between the narrator, Andrew (a middle-aged cognitive scientist), and an unknown interviewer (one who is seemingly a psychotherapist of sorts). The setting is undisclosed, and why Andrew is undergoing these sessions is not made readily clear.
In one digression, he recalls that when he was a boy, a driver suffered fatal injuries from veering off the road and smashing into a light pole in an attempt to avoid hitting him he was sledding. Ostensibly he is a cognitive scientist telling his story to someone called Doc, who appears to be a psychoanalyst of some sort. The story is not cheerful: Andrew discloses in the first few pages that he unwittingly killed his infant daughter by administering a drug that had been wrongly dispensed by the pharmacist.
For instance, sometimes he seems to unknowingly exaggerate when rehashing bits from previously told stories. A reoccurring discussion in the book is about a core problem of neuroscience: as Andrew puts it, how "the brain becomes the mind.



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