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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Do the abusive messages sent to One Direction members reveal a darker side to fandom?

Incidents like this are often used to characterise all young female fans, but this isn’t about fandom. It’s harassment. 

One Direction’s Niall Horan is the internet’s favourite innocent blond goofball. He spends his days tweeting platitudes about golf and the weather, Snapchatting his reactions to whatever is on his TV, and thanking his fans for everything they’ve done for him. His social media presence is generally one of cheerful bemusement.

So, last night, the web went into maternal #ProtectNiall mode when he took to Twitter to highlight the darker side to fame.

A group of “fans” got hold of Niall’s number, and started frantically texting, WhatsApping and calling him. After two weeks of constant abusive messaging, despite requests to stop, Niall tries to use his platform to get them to stop.

Around the same time, screenshots of the supposed messages started to circle online. (I certainly can’t prove whether they’re real or not, but they first surfaced before Niall’s tweets and feel genuine.) The pattern that emerges seems to be one of frantic, attention-seeking messaging, extreme shock and surprise when he writes back, and, when Niall only requests that they stop messaging him and respect his privacy, the really nasty stuff starts. Messages range from “You invented cancer” to “If [your nephew] was my kid I’d sell it”; from “You’re so stupid and r*tarded” to “I hope your house blows up”.

Niall’s responses are extremely Niall in their politeness. “Why do I deserve to have a bad day?” he asks one. “You guys are bullies,” he tells them. “Go away please.”

As soon as the screenshots emerged, so did suspicions about the identity of the individuals in question. A set of five or six Twitter handles were circled by fan accounts, encouraging people to block and report the usernames to Twitter. Some of the owners of these accounts themselves claim to have been part of the conversations in question, to varying degrees. These account owners are seemingly women, under the age of 18, who have supposedly been involved in other recent One Direction harassment incidents.

One of those incidents came just days before Niall’s tweets. A person suspected to be a member of this group of “fans” got hold of another band member’s phone number: Louis Tomlinson’s. You can listen to a recording of the phone conversation between them that leaked online. After telling him her Twitter handle, Tomlinson asks the caller how she got his number. “You’re a fucking bitch and I hope your baby dies,” she says. Louis responds with a variation on the ancient proverb, “Lawyer up, asshole.” He seemingly tweeted about the incident later that day – and Niall retweeted him.

Fan accounts insist that the same Twitter users were also involved in hacking the iCloud of Anne Twist, Harry Styles’s mother, and leaking hundreds of photos of her son online.

The whole situation is a complicated mess. Parts of the messages feel as though they have been influenced by the style of accounts desperately trying to get the attention of celebrities on Twitter. If you look at the top reply to any tweet from a celebrity with millions of Twitter followers, the responses are calculated to shock the most in an attempt to get noticed. Maybe it’s a weird combination of sexual and violent imagery, or a sexist or racist slur. This is harassment itself, but its ubiquitousness can make it seem less offensive or extreme. Perhaps this kind of behaviour is easier to ignore on Twitter or Instagram – if you have millions of followers, you presumably can’t be notified every time one of them interacts with you online. When it moves into your private sphere, I can image it becomes more terrifying than annoying. Maybe these girls were simply swept up in the cultural moment, and failed to grasp the consquences of their behaviour.

Is it a damning indictment of the hysteria of teenage girls? The scary state of twenty-first century fandom? The problems of anonymity offered by the internet? It’s true that the internet has offered new ways for fans and celebrities to have a more direct connection with one another: for the most part, a mutually beneficial arrangement.

But the revelation of the internet has also been that it is a tool through which fundamentally human behaviours are expressed. Over the last few decades, we have learned that aggressive behaviour online is not limited to largely non-existent stereotypes of spotty virgins in their mothers’ basements, or teenage girls developing “dangerous” sexuality. Grown men and women, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons all do it. It’s also not a behaviour that is inherently connected to online spaces: children and teenagers might experiment with moral boundaries through cyberbullying, but they also might do it via anonymous notes in lockers or whispers in school corridors. People of all ages, professions and genders harass others.

The real problem is not celebrity culture or the concept of teenage fandom or social media. As Louis Tomlinson rightly identifies, it’s that our laws have failed to catch up. If we continue to treat harassment as harassment, in all spaces and by all perpetrators, we’ll have a better chance of minimising it.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.