The narrator of E.L. Doctorow’s latest novel, “Andrew’s Brain,” is a cognitive scientist with a guilty soul. He blames himself for every bad thing that has happened to him in his lifetime, and that’s a lot.
His first child dies, and his marriage falls apart. To escape his grief, he takes a teaching job out West, where he falls in love with Briony, a beautiful student half his age. They have a child, then she dies under freakish circumstances and he abandons the infant with his ex-wife.
After a brief stint teaching high school, Andrew goes to work in the White House as neuroscience czar for his former Yale roommate, scion of a famous American political dynasty. But that job ends badly, too, and Andrew ends up in a mysterious detention facility, the victim of his boss’s war on terror.
Andrew’s litany of failure and loss unspools in a series of conversations with an unnamed interlocutor, almost certainly a psychotherapist, over an unspecified time period, in largely unidentified settings, and in a variety of modes, including letters, phone calls and face to face.
The therapist, naturally, fights his profession’s valiant but losing battle to get his neurotic client to be a little kinder to himself. “Do you think, Andrew, you may sometimes overreact?” he gently suggests.
Because this is Doctorow, Andrew’s ruminations can be funny, and his descriptions gorgeous. Here he is on his students’ religious beliefs: “God was an assumption, like something preinstalled in their computers.” And on the approach to New York City from the New Jersey Turnpike: “past the oil refinery burn-offs … the planes dropping to the runways of Newark Airport … the turnpike risen now on concrete pillars … holding up the furious intentions of traffic.”
His most singular invention is Briony’s family: two retired entertainers who once performed with troupes of midgets. They’re diminutive, but she is normally proportioned. Andrew’s dawning realization, on his first visit to their home, that something is slightly off is a tour de force.
In the end, Andrew’s therapy sessions don’t add up to a convincing narrative. We get the shadow of a man, the outline of a story. “Andrew’s Brain” reads more like a notebook than a novel, although one filled with fascinating ideas from neuroscience and intriguing characters.