Pretenders and Holy Fools: E. L. Doctorow’s Andrew’s Brain

Reviewed in this essay: Andrew’s Brain by E. L. Doctorow (Random House, 2014)

andrewsbrainsmallAndrew, the cognitive scientist-narrator of E.L. Doctorow’s latest novel, is endearingly clumsy—he knocks drinks into laps, drops bottles on toes, and litters the floor with books. For his ex-wife’s new husband, these slapstick misdemeanours betray a sinister connection to the tragic deaths of Andrew’s first daughter and his second wife. To him Andrew is The Pretender, simulating generosity and geniality when he is, in reality, “a dangerously fake person, congenitally insincere and a killer.” Andrew does not disagree.

Composed of a dialogue between Andrew and a therapist, who may be a voice inside his head, the novel forms an extended inquiry into the status of “pretending” at a time when science is increasingly coming to terms with the brain’s biological and psychological processes. As we learn more about how the brain’s wayward chemistry dictates our decisions, invests us, for instance, in mob mentality or ensconces us in feelings of righteousness, the novel asks whether we can harness this new self-awareness into more radical forms of freedom.

According to Andrew’s lectures, however, the brain enslaves the human being to its deceptive, totalitarian authority over mental activity. Its methods and purposes can never quite be excavated and so can never be circumvented: “We have to be wary of our brains. They make our decisions before we make them.” Andrew rejects the possibility of thinking without the material instrument of the brain, making attempts at self-discovery just circuitous forms of cerebral self-deception. As Andrew announces, “This too is the brain’s cunning, that you are not to know yourself.” Every act of self-consciousness, then, must also be a state of pretending, of presuming to know and to control a slippery internal despot.

But, if self-knowledge must remain elusive, how can we resist being lulled into a culture-wide hive mentality, taking social structures for raw fact? Andrew levels this charge against his former college roommate George W. Bush and his White House cronies. In public addresses Doctorow has made his opposition to Bush clear, and Andrew mirrors his author’s critical position. Andrew, in a climactic speech, names Bush and his advisors “Pretenders” for believing in their infallible access to the truth and translating that fantasy into war. At the same time, Andrew re-anoints himself as a Holy Fool, who grieves for the absurd historical reality and “mourns for his country.”

Undercutting national mythology that parades as fact has long been central to Doctorow’s artistic project. He writes in Creationists, a recent collection of essays, that authors “are ordained to contest the aggregate fictions of their societies.” Andrew’s Brain casts the Holy Fool in this same critical role, particularly considering the novel’s inclusion of 9/11 as a moment of both personal and national trauma. Suffering is a key term here. Immersed in bereavement, Andrew comes to feel subtly attuned to people around him and to those unknown or dead. This communal connection, he insists, comes not from the as-yet incomplete insights of cognitive science but from the suffering generated by his daughter’s and his wife’s deaths.

Alongside its overt criticism of Bush, the novel hides within its melancholic instincts and the hesitancy of its prose an alternative model for relating to others. The veracity of Andrew’s confessions wavers (is he really the President’s ex-roommate?), but his story in its very uncertainty voices an ethical imperative to turn moments of unthinkable disaster, be they national traumas or personal tragedies, into resources for contemplation and community rather than excuses for aggression. Andrew’s Brain may not be Doctorow’s most fluid novel (Ragtime) or his flashiest (Billy Bathgate), but it is likely his most tender.