'Andrew's Brain': E.L. Doctorow plays mind games

His new novel moves from an apparent therapy session to a satire of George W. Bush

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According to The New York Times, E.L. Doctorow has been in "the first rank of American writers" since the publication of his 1971 novel, "The Book of Daniel," a fictionalized treatment of the trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Mr. Doctorow's enduring interest in American history is on vivid display in his latest novel, "Andrew's Brain," which is part science lecture, part parable and part slyly oblique satire of George W. Bush's presidency.

Written in the form of an ongoing dialogue between "Andrew" -- a mysterious narrator who shifts back and forth between the first and third person in relating the events of his own life -- and someone Andrew calls "Doc," it's an odd little experiment of a book. 

By E.L. Doctorow
Random House ($26).

Describing himself as a cognitive scientist, Andrew holds forth on a variety of topics, including but not limited to the human brain and its properties; his first wife, Martha; his teaching career; his second wife, Briony; his two doomed daughters, one from each marriage; Mark Twain; the attacks of 9/11; the New York marathon; California; little people; the war on terror; and artificial intelligence.

By turns bitter, dark, funny, frightening, tragic and eerie, these linked disquisitions are the meat of the book. What is going on inside of Andrew's brain? Where is he? Who is he? With whom is he speaking? Is "Doc" real?

"Writing is like talking to yourself," Andrew observes at one point, "which I have been doing with you all along anyway, Doc." And who, after all, are we, the readers? Are we confessors? Witnesses? Voyeurs? These are compelling enough questions to arouse the curiosity of any reader with an interest in ontology or epistemology.

The introduction of his sinister advisers, saddled by their overgrown frat boy of a boss with the undignified nicknames of "Chaingang" and "Rumbum," is the biggest clue to the unnamed but frequently invoked president's identity. According to Andrew, the president, who was his roommate during their undergraduate days at Yale, was "feckless, irresponsible, in over his head."

Much has been written about the 43rd president of the United States, with "his chosen war, his anti-scientism," but until now, none of it has sprung from the imaginary perspective of his fictional college roommate. "I recognized the same twist of the mouth before the punch line of some dumb joke. ... And the cockiness was there. But the eyes, a little bit scared, the eyes. Like he'd realized what he'd become," says Andrew.

It's an innovative, provocative way of injecting fresh life into a sketch of a man who is by now as familiar as a cartoon character to most Americans (and just as lovable or loathsome, depending on your political persuasion).

"I am politically informed," declares Andrew toward the novel's end. "Apart from everything I've been telling you about myself, I am a citizen sensitive to his country's history." The same could be said of Mr. Doctorow. Although he is particularly interested in America, his oeuvre bears the stamp of his fascination with the psychological and social dynamics underlying all politics and history.

Mr. Doctorow is not a writer of conventional historic fiction, in the sense that he doesn't merely transcribe the minutiae of certain points and places in time, adding a descriptive flourish or two. Instead, he locates and amplifies the human emotions that lend poignancy to particular moments in individual lives.

He does not invent underdeveloped characters, for the sake of convenience, to illustrate broad historic concepts; he illuminates these concepts by taking us inside the mind of a fully formed figure -- a man whose pain, fear, desire and suffering we come to know and identify with. The journey from this novel's unsettling, parabolical beginning to its ambiguous end is frequently disorienting, but it's worth the trip.

Raina Lipsitz (rainalipsitz@gmail.com) has written for The Atlantic (online), Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney's, Nerve.com, Ploughshares and Salon.

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