A couple with dwarfism, New Jersey, late 1800s. Photo: Getty Images.
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Thought crimes: inside the consciousness of a damaged, damaging man

In <em>Andrew’s Brain</em> by E L Doctorow, the historical and the grand meld with the ordinary and affecting in a story that also features “an international dealer in Munchkins”.

Andrew’s Brain
E L Doctorow
Little, Brown, 198 pp, £12.99

He was from Czechoslovakia and she was from Limerick. They met and fell in love thanks to Leo Singer, an American impresario who went around postwar Europe collecting “midgets” such as them for circus shows and vaudeville acts. Eventually, Singer became Hollywood’s go-to-guy when MGM needed Munchkins for their film. “He was this international dealer in Munchkins,” we learn, partway through E L Doctorow’s new novel.

Sweeping in setting, matter-of-fact in its eccentricities, assured in combining the historical and grand with the ordinary and affecting – this is clearly an E L Doctorow novel, exactly the kind of sprawling, brawny stuff we’ve come to expect from the author of books such as Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, The Book of Daniel and The March. For more than five decades, Doctorow has written novels that jolt American history to life with electrified portraits of major figures and captivating inventions of nearby, everyday people – whether in the civil war, the roaring 1920s or the mistrust-filled early days of the cold war.

So the tale of Singer and his young diminutive lovers would seem to be entirely in keeping with Doctorow’s work to date, but for one thing: the entire story is related in about a page and it’s incidental to the larger plot of Andrew’s Brain. Indeed, following on from Homer & Langley, his wilfully claustrophobic 2009 novel about mid-century New York brothers who were pathological hoarders, Andrew’s Brain might suggest a late turn in Doctorow’s vision, from outsized historical terrain to smaller and more private, peculiar premises. But as it turns out, he can’t help but bring greater history to bear upon what ostensibly appears to be one man’s strange, small story.

Andrew’s Brain concerns the tragicomic life and times of a cognitive scientist called Andrew, who veers between the first and third person in telling tales about his clumsy self and his cracked-up relationships. He speaks to us from an undisclosed location, where he is in conversation with an unidentified interlocutor who could be a psychiatrist, a grief counsellor, a police officer or a CIA agent. That each of these is a possibility attests to the mysterious circumstances that envelop the whole story.

The novel begins in an emphatically domestic mode. Twice-married but now alone, Andrew is scornful of his bad decisions and stumbling actions, and likewise regretful of the harm he has caused others – nowhere more evident than in the mistaken dosage of medicine that he gave his first child, which led to her death and his own divorce. He’s also sarcastically sympathetic to the dim-to-monstrous view that many people take of him – his ex-wife’s new husband calls him “Andrew the Pretender,” the pretence being that he’s a well-intentioned and normal person. In addition, he’s openly sceptical of his questioner’s ultimate intentions towards him and often proves evasive and circuitous in his answers, but this has less to do with his wanting to conceal anything, than with the crackling intensity of his interest in the workings of his own consciousness.

This comes as no surprise for a cognitive scientist fully invested in the “exploration of consciousness, the field of all meaning, the necessary and sufficient condition of language, the beginning of all good mornings.” Consciousness, Andrew believes, is “what is left when you erase all assumptions, forgo your affections, white out the family, school, church and nation … There is not anything else. There is nothing you can think of except yourself thinking. You are in the depthless dingledom of your own soul.”

This account opens a lecture that Andrew delivers at a minor state college in the American west, where he has moved after the failure of his first marriage. Among the hall full of indifferent undergraduates is one bright and beautiful exception: Briony, a vital, ebullient and lithe young woman (and the full-sized daughter of two of Singer’s pint-sized thespians). Andrew falls in love with Briony, for which he accounts by noting that, after they began spending time together, “My hippocampus and my amygdala were … doing back flips.”

A May-November romance flourishes; in time they move to New York and have a baby, and all’s buoyantly well until Briony runs an errand in Lower Manhattan, the morning of 11 September 2001. Her death is shocking, unfathomable, almost absurd. Doctorow’s touch is here deft and masterful: the circumstances are so unexpected, they strain credulity, but in fact our reaction is in keeping with the confusing experience of personal loss before the sudden irruption of outsized history and tragedy.

Andrew’s response is another matter entirely. He gives his now-motherless baby to his long-childless ex-wife as some kind of practical solution, a balancing of the ethical scales, and departs for the anonymity of a lowly high-school science job in Washington. Via a rickety coincidence or two, he soon becomes involved with back-room presidential socialising-cum-politics.

Having kept American history largely off the page for most of the novel and brought it to bear with a sudden hammering force via Briony’s death, Doctorow then rolls a strange bolus of it through the novel’s latter sections. The result is more awkward than winning: Andrew’s experiences with the main players in the Bush administration are absurd and pathetic, as much for him as for the callow president and the members of his vain, dented brain trust, all of whom are predictably “imperial in their selfhood” and accompanying presumption to dictate terms to the rest of the world.

We learn of their interactions as Andrew unfolds an Oval Office-set story of clumsiness and hubris that culminates in what he describes as “no more than an act of inspired madness. Or maybe it was just my brain saying if it’s a fool they want it’s a fool they will get.”

Is he a plain fool, or a truth-telling Shakespearean fool? By the novel’s end, you can’t tell who, or what, to take seriously, confined as you are in the consciousness of a damaged, damaging man. Doctorow closes an otherwise tightly private book by having history and politics and one man’s hippocampus and amygdala all suddenly doing back flips together.

Randy Boyagoda is the author of “Beggar’s Feast” (Penguin, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses