Doctorow_Andrews-BrainIt isn’t often that I search for other reviews of a book before finishing at least a draft of my own thoughts, but I made an exception for E.L. Doctorow’s latest novel, Andrew’s Brain. The book is short and I read it slowly twice and skimmed it cover to cover a third and fourth time, looking for clues to a puzzle I could sort of foggily discern being there, a joke I wasn’t quite getting. I’m usually more likely to blame my own dull faculties when I’m confused by a book—especially one written by an American fiction luminary like Doctorow—rather than accuse the author (and his editors, and anyone else in the chain of decision-making machinery at the publisher) of deliberate opacity. After reading reviews of the book in several large national papers and online literati blogs, I feel slightly more confident in saying that Doctorow either accidentally wrote himself into an unsatisfying spot and ultimately decided to go for some kind of post-modern/post-sensical effect, or he’s made some kind of sweeping yet subtle political statement about post-9/11 America and we’re all just a little too thick to get it. Could be both. I’m still unconvinced.

Most of the reviews I’ve read talk at some length about the impact of Doctorow’s earlier novels, spend a bit of time picking apart the book’s events, then end with a bit of a shrug when it comes to the success of the story as a story. Standard review form. I’ve written plenty of those myself. I’ll skip to the end here and say that I don’t think that Andrew’s Brain doesn’t quite work as intended, though I also can’t quite say that I didn’t enjoy the dead-end ride.

Andrew’s story—pretty close to a monologue, really—investigates several big concepts—disastrous fate, amorous and parental love, political evil—and spreads them across a background noise composed of cognitive science, 9/11, “midget” Hollywood, Boris Godunov, and the works of Mark Twain. If you’re wondering how all of those work together, consider the movie The Usual Suspects and its narrator, “Verbal” Kint, who (spoiler warning for a two-decade-old movie you should have seen already) weaves, quite unreliably, a tale from scraps on a policeman’s bulletin board. Andrew’s narration is no more reliable, with convenient coincidences (the aforementioned opera playing on the radio, being the President’s college roommate, his wife’s loutish ex-boyfriend calling as the WTC burns, chalk breaking at the blackboard twice) and utter mysteries (a farmhouse in Pennsylvania, the identity of his psychiatrist, the timeline of his catastrophes) showing up just when his story needs a new boost. This, at least, is not Doctorow telling us a shaggy dog story, but giving us clues that Andrew very well might be telling one. Andrew is neurotic and long-winded, poetic and charming, funny and likely a narcissist. We get just enough of his bullshit to feel entertained, but not enough to figure out what truth might be behind it.

There’s a wavering, not-quite compelling brain science motif running through the book. In a late exchange, Andrew tells his possibly court-appointed shrink that when divided, the human brain’s hemispheres will continue operating independently, unaware of each other. Similarly, there are two independent halves to Andrew’s story: pre-9/11, which is concerned with a lifelong string of catastrophes that includes several deaths and injuries, the courtship of his student and the abandonment of their daughter to his first wife; and post-9/11, in which all of that drama is largely forgotten in favor of an extended sequence—reeking of delusional fantasy and occasional paranoia—involving Andrew’s relationship with President George W. Bush (who is never explicitly named, but also not at all disguised).

At the end, we are led to believe that Andrew has been “renditioned” for his interactions with the President, which bolts further clunky political commentary onto the book. Doctorow’s portrayals of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfield are biting and apt (when faced with the Prisoner’s Dilemma problem, “Chaingang” and “Rumbum” choose to betray each other, guaranteeing the worst possible outcome), but out of place in what had been until that point a story going a completely different, intentionally meandering, direction.

There’s been plenty of literature devoted to personal and cultural fractures post-9/11, and I doubt that Doctorow is chiming in with his own this late and this lightly, so I’m unsure what to do with the latter half of Andrew’s story. Parallel to the cognitive science throughline, there is another involving Mark Twain that seems more fully formed. Twain’s work appears in several locations where Andrew is staying, including collected editions in his cell at the book’s close and at a cabin to which Andrew retreats early in the novel. There, Andrew explicitly calls out the similarities between Twain’s sorrow at losing a wife and a daughter and his own, and this metaphor feels more true, than does any of the unlikely White House shenanigans and consequences.

Andrew’s Brain‘s strengths are in the compelling nature of Andrew’s voice telling his story. Throughout the book, Andrew tells his psychiatrist that he’s “a different man” multiple times: “in front of a class,” “alone in a cabin,” “in a fjord,” “in the oval office” and when he’s with his wife. These different men that he becomes are engaging. The book’s weaknesses lie in the form of the shaggy dog tale: You can’t trust the storyteller to take you anywhere interesting. But for at least half the book, you can enjoy how he’s getting you there.