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)