By E. L. Doctorow
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
This book is about the brain. In general, the games and tricks our brain plays on us. In specific, it is about the brain of Andrew, a cognitive scientist who is narrating his life to a therapist. The vehicle of the book's narrative is a dialogue running through a series of sessions. Why these sessions are taking place is not revealed until the end and even then there are many questions. Andrew is the poster boy for an unreliable narrator. From the beginning there are moments that may be his life or may be his imagination. For instance, in the beginning of the novel he speaks of of hearing voices and walking into a stranger's house. At first he seems to be unsure if it really happened. But soon he is saying it was an actual incident. The therapist keeps asking if it was a dream, not quite sure himself. This scenario plays itself over in many ways. But soon we get a narration that makes sense, at least for a while. Andrew is a brilliant but troubled man. He sees himself as being a conduit for a series of tragic incidents, starting when a hawk carried off his pet dachshund when he was eight. He partially blames his own ineptitude for these incidents yet he maintains an uncaring attitude and a disdain for his own stoic in-humaneness.
Andrew is a hard man to like. To be frank, he comes across as an arrogant ass. But he is a person we want to understand. I do not think I ever really understood him and that may be a weakness of the story. Halfway into the novel and especially at the end, it appears more and more than some of the events are imagined. There is one event involving the White House that really came from nowhere and I couldn't help wondering if it was a fantasy, not unlike the meerkat island in Life of Pi. But like the therapist, we are never grounded in Brian's perception of reality. But I am not sure it is fair to blame the author for being vague, especially in a novel that is about the illusions of the mind. Doctorow may have led us exactly where he wanted us. At the end, I got the distinct impression that Andrew may not have been in his final predicament for the reasons he said he is. It's that unreliable narrative thing again. That is my take but I suspect that 100 readers will have 100 different takes on the ending. Doctorow has appeared to have written a novel that is as intangible and unpredictable as our own minds.
So what to make of all this? Andrew's Brain is a fairly simple read, brief at 200 pages, and quite involving. Yet it is also somewhat perplexing and a little maddening when you think about it afterwards. Does our perceptions rely on reality or does reality rely on our perceptions? If you think that is a silly question, you need to spend a little time in Andrew's brain
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