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The protagonist and narrator of E. L. Doctorow’s twelfth novel, Andrew’s Brain (Random House, $26), is a clumsy cognitive scientist who relates the story of his life from an undisclosed location to an unnamed psychiatrist. His anxious monologue — interrupted occasionally by the analyst’s dopey questions — is at once marriage plot, 9/11 novel, and neuroscience brief. Andrew isn’t a very convincing proponent of his subject. His despair over the (misleading) finding that brains “make our decisions before we make them,” for example, tells us a good deal about his own fears and almost nothing about the problem of free will. Speaking of will: Andrew’s being held against his, and though he professes to be suspicious of the talking cure, he can’t shut up.

Head II, cross section in rolled paper, by Lisa Nilsson. Courtesy the artist and Pavel Zoubok Gallery, New York City

Head II, cross section in rolled paper, by Lisa Nilsson.
Courtesy the artist and Pavel Zoubok Gallery, New York City

The critic John Leonard once described Doctorow as two men, one liberal intellectual citizen and one visionary prophet, and Andrew is the hallucinating technician who results from combining both styles of thought in one character. He’s by turns antic and mournful, somber and joyfully in love, clinical and desperate, and he finds himself in situations tragic and pointlessly silly. (I refer you to the performing midgets.) He’s neglectful, or at least neglect has a way of finding him, as when the pharmacist sends the wrong medicine, and he feeds it to the baby, and the baby dies. His ex-wife’s new husband dubs him Sir Andrew the Pretender, “whose well-meaning, gentle, kindly disposed, charming ineptitude is the modus operandi of the deadliest of killers.”

The description sounds a bit like a certain leader of the free world, circa 2001 — and it turns out that Andrew is the old college roommate of that forty-third president of the United States. The two cross paths at a decrepit D.C. high school where Andrew has sunk to teaching teens science; POTUS just happens to swing by on a quick P.R. stunt. Fearful that Andrew will reveal to the press his collegiate habit of cheating on exams, the president appoints him to a special, short-lived government post. Andrew thinks about as much of old Chaingang and Rumbum as Doctorow himself does — “self-appointed world strategists” with “ranks of ideologues and think-tank warriors behind them” — and it’s not long after that he tells them off with an act of absurdity: a handstand in the Oval Office. That’s how he wound up wherever it is he’s wound up, remembering, or trying not to, how it is that he got there.

“Presidency VI,” a photograph of a life-size model fabricated from paper, cardboard, and confetti, by Thomas Demand  © The artist/VG Bild-Kunst/Artists Rights Society, New York City. Courtesy Sprüth Magers, Berlin and London

“Presidency VI,” a photograph of a life-size model fabricated from paper, cardboard, and confetti, by Thomas Demand © The artist/VG Bild-Kunst/Artists Rights Society, New York City. Courtesy Sprüth Magers, Berlin and London

Writing a 9/11 novel from the point of view of a neuroscientist may be Doctorow’s way of saying that our politics are irrational, and that the failures of the Bush era were failures of thinking. Maybe. But reason can’t make sense of that handstand, which is an homage to Andrew’s second wife, former student, and true love, Briony, an exuberant gymnast who almost succeeded in getting him out of his head — until, that is, she went for a run downtown on the morning of 9/11. Since her death he hasn’t had much use for cognitive autonomy, with its burdensome memories, frustrated desires, illusory will, and countless griefs. He prefers to meditate on the power of “the communal brain.” Perhaps, he speculates, humans are governed by a shared mind, like an ant colony. “You know Emerson?” Andrew asks. “It’s what Emerson, thinking of his own kind of creature, mistakenly calls the oversoul. He romanticizes it, making it a constituent of ethical thinking suggesting God. When all he is aspiring to is a kind of universal pheromonal genius.”

Andrew’s Brain is erudite and humane and brisk, and almost overcomes its shticky setup. Andrew is a novelist’s kind of scientist, who turns for redemption to the familiar American pantheon: Twain, Emerson, William James, Walt Whitman. (The book ends with Andrew waxing plaintive about the stories Mark Twain told his children at bedtime.) Of course — and the author knows it — it was not Emerson but Thoreau who had the best lines about ants.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. Her most recent article, “Bed-Wetting,” appeared in the August 2013 issue.

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