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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How that deleted lesbian scene in Love Actually should have gone

If the film was made in a more utopian 2003, this is what it would have looked like.

Here are some things that “haven’t” made me cry in recent days: “She’s The One” by Robbie Williams coming on the radio in a 3am Uber; my cat farting on my boob; the deleted lesbian storyline in Love Actually. No, the recently unearthed segment of the schmaltziest film of an entire decade in which the resplendent Frances de la Tour plays the terminally ill partner of a “stern headmistress” with a marshmallow interior (Anne Reid) most definitely did not make me sob like someone’s recently divorced uncle spending Christmas Day in a Wetherspoons.

The posh older lesbian archetype, it turns out, is something I find quite affecting. Reid and de la Tour play one of those couples who have (probably…) overcome so many obstacles in order to be lesbians together. Poshness. Being at an all-girls boarding school in which lesbianism was simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. More poshness. Section 28. Gazing longingly at each other while one tinkles Chopin’s Nocturnes on a dilapidated piano, in a crumbling stately home, and the other sips brandy from a chipped crystal tumbler; both daring not taste the forbidden fruit of the poetess Sappho, etc, etc. Radclyffe Hall. Horses. Poor hygiene.

Unfortunately, seeing as Love Actually was released in 2003 – roughly a decade before people began pretending to care about lesbians – Richard Curtis was forced to cut the one genuinely moving plotline (which actually contains none of the above, but I think heavily implies it) from his cinematic ode to bollocks. But perhaps, had the only non-hetero, non-fucking annoying couple been less of an afterthought and more, say, utterly crucial to the narrative, things could’ve been different. Here’s how, in a more utopian 2003, that might have been achieved:

Maggie Smith and Judi Dench (seriously, how did these women get away with not being in Love Actually in the first place?) are militant communists. Judi Dench is a sculptor who used to drink schnapps with Ulrike Meinhof. In the 1980s, she moved to Cuba and became a professional recluse. Maggie Smith, on the other hand, is someone’s spinster great aunt. It doesn’t really matter whose but, for the sake of argument, let’s say that ginger guy who used to be in My Family and those BT ads. (Just a reminder, his actual character in Love Actually is the one whose entire personality is being a bit of a sexist virgin and having an English accent which eventually gets him laid by several American women.)

Anyway, Maggie Smith’s character, let’s call her Edith, has spent her whole life being both a secret lesbian and a secret communist. On holiday in Cuba, she bumps into Judi Dench’s character, let’s call her Annie, and they hook up. Graphically and repeatedly. And, before I’m accused of deus ex machina laziness, please be reminded that this is Love freaking Actually.

Edith and Annie decide that because they’re quite old and don’t care any more, they’re going to go back to London and assassinate the terrible Hugh Grant prime minister. Through yet more hilarious deus ex machina, they manage to sneak into No 10 late at night, with handguns. Hugh Grant is all, “Blimey, who are you.” Edith is all, “your worst nightmare, bitch”. Bear in mind the audience is now shitting itself laughing because an old posh lady just talked all gangster. Then Annie pistol whips him and he passes out in the most Hugh Grant way possible ie he says, “oh dear,” then hits the floor like an untalented, floppy haired douche. When he comes to, he’s tied to a chair in his office. At this point he remembers that he was supposed to turn up at Tiffany from EastEnders’s house and declare his love for her. He begs Annie and Edith to let him phone her. “As it’s Christmas”, they decide to let the fucker do one last really corny thing before he dies. There are no bodyguards or anything, by the way. Remember, this is a film in which – post-9/11 – a child (albeit a white one) runs through airport security and isn’t shot 17 times in the head.

So, the PM phones up Tiffany from EastEnders and says, “Look. I… there’s something I wanted to tell you. And I was planning on doing it in person but …gosh this is all so terribly inconvenient… I’m being held hostage by lesbian communists. I do hope you can forgive me.”

After some more “frightfully English” bumbling crap, Edith puts her gun to Hugh Grant’s head and pulls the trigger. Her and Annie then make out for like seven minutes. Eventually, a cockney policeman played by Timothy Spall shows up and decides to let the two women off, again, “as it’s Christmas.” Also, he mentions, “No one liked that tosser anyway.”

“She’s the One” by Robbie Willams begins to play.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.