Alright, book #18 of 2015 is done. I’m thinking around the 20th or 25th book landmark I’ll do something super nerdy and pointless, like add up all the pages I’ve read so far… or something. Anyway, the book I just finished was interesting and almost surreal and very good. I have a feeling it’s one of those that rewards re-reads, so I plan on coming back to it eventually.
The book is Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow. I have never heard of this author in my life, but the description on the back sounded whimsical and interesting last time I was at Barnes & Noble so I bought it. Turns out Doctorow has written several books, and has been called an “American master,” so I’m not upset that I’m jumping into his work, just slightly disappointed that I discovered him by accident.
Andrew’s Brain was somehow hilarious and sobering. The entire, 200-page novel is told through the strange, lovable narrative voice and thoughts and stories of Andrew, the main character. He’s recounting some of his recent life history to someone else, and it never becomes clear who that someone else is. The voice he speaks to responds to him from time to time, and Andrew calls him “Doc,” so I ended up assuming he was either his prison-appointed psychiatrist (because turns out Andrew is in prison… sorry, little spoiler), or a figment of Andrew’s own imagination (because I have a theory that the whole story took place in Andrew’s imagination).
Either way, I love books that make you question who is who, and who exists, but also make you consider whether that even matters. In the case of Andrew’s Brain, I don’t think it really does. Andrew is bumbling, and this “Doc” character is mostly listening, sometimes interrupting, sometimes trying to learn more about an incident or person that Andrew mentions. Half the time, this seems to matter little to Andrew, and his reactions (and lack thereof) to “Doc” seem to be more indicative of Andrew’s personality than anything else. The voices of both characters, though, are so perfectly human that I could clearly hear the whole conversation of a novel in my head as I read.
There’s a huge focus on the brain and cognitive function in the book, too, and I think that’s part of what made it so sobering. Andrew seems to be aggressively followed by bad luck, and a case of being in the worst possible place at the worst possible time. As he’s recounting his life to “Doc,” almost all of his stories seem so far-fetched that they can’t possibly be true.
Those insane stories tied in with overly science-jargony, and very real-sounding language about the brain, mind, and consciousness balanced each other out, I thought. The book finishes with the most outrageous story of all, and answers some of the questions that are raised throughout the novel. Ultimately, though, the book raised more questions than it answered by instilling real-life doubt about the reality of the present and the past, and the meaning of it all. Thinking about that for too long makes me feel jumpy and nauseous, but somehow I still really liked this book.
I know I always say that probably none of this makes sense unless you have read this book, but I’m sure this one really doesn’t make sense unless you’ve read it. I don’t want to give away spoilers, because it was extremely enjoyable to read the slowly-revealed details about Andrew’s life and his past, all through his cynical and lumbering voice. But I promise it’s good, and everyone should read it.
It made me want to do a lot of research on E.L. Doctorow, too. Any writer who can spread/condense a mostly one-sided conversation about several years’ worth of crazy memories and experiences into 200 pages is an impressive writer. ◊
‘Thoughts of Briony gave me all sorts of perceptive advantages. It was as if something of her mind was still alive in me.’ ‘Is that cognitive science?’ ‘Not really. It’s more like suffering.'”
– page 182