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?

Gettty
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The mizzly tones of Source FM

Drewzy (male, fortysomething) composedly, gently, talks of “time condensing like dew on a damp Cornish window”.

A mizzly Thursday in Falmouth and the community radio presenters Drewzy and the Robot are playing a Fat Larry’s Band single they picked up in a local charity shop. Drewzy (male, fortysomething) composedly, gently, talks of “time condensing like dew on a damp Cornish window”, and selects a Taiwanese folk song about muntjacs co-operating with the rifles of hunters. The robot (possibly the same person using an electronic voice-changer with a volume booster, but I wouldn’t swear to it) is particularly testy today about his co-host’s music choices (“I don’t like any of it”), the pair of them broadcasting from inside two converted shipping containers off the Tregenver Road.

I am told the Source can have an audience of up to 5,500 across Falmouth and Penryn, although when I fan-mail Drewzy about this he replies: “In my mind it is just me, the listener (singular), and the robot.” Which is doubtless why on air he achieves such epigrammatic fluency – a kind of democratic ease characteristic of a lot of the station’s 60-plus volunteer presenters, some regular, some spookily quiescent, only appearing now and again. There’s Pirate Pete, who recently bewailed the scarcity of pop songs written in celebration of Pancake Day (too true); there’s the Cornish Cream slot (“showcasing artists . . . who have gone to the trouble of recording their efforts”), on which a guest recently complained that her Brazilian lover made her a compilation CD, only to disappear before itemising the bloody tracks (we’ve all been there).

But even more mysterious than the identity of Drewzy’s sweetly sour robot is the Lazy Prophet, apparently diagnosed with PTSD and refusing medication. His presenter profile states, “I’ve spent the last year in almost total isolation and reclusion observing the way we do things as a species.”

That, and allowing his energies to ascend to a whole new plateau, constructing a two-hour Sunday-morning set – no speaking: just a mash-up of movie moments, music, animal and nature sounds – so expert that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in fact someone like the La’s Salinger-esque Lee Mavers, escaped from Liverpool. I’m tempted to stake out the shipping containers.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle