Synopses & Reviews
This brilliant new novel by an American master, the author of Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, Billy Bathgate,
and The March,
takes us on a radical trip into the mind of a man who, more than once in his life, has been the inadvertent agent of disaster.
Speaking from an unknown place and to an unknown interlocutor, Andrew is thinking, Andrew is talking, Andrew is telling the story of his life, his loves, and the tragedies that have led him to this place and point in time. And as he confesses, peeling back the layers of his strange story, we are led to question what we know about truth and memory, brain and mind, personality and fate, about one another and ourselves. Written with psychological depth and great lyrical precision, this suspenseful and groundbreaking novel delivers a voice for our times — funny, probing, skeptical, mischievous, profound. Andrew’s Brain is a surprising turn and a singular achievement in the canon of a writer whose prose has the power to create its own landscape, and whose great topic, in the words of Don DeLillo, is “the reach of American possibility, in which plain lives take on the cadences of history.”
"In his newest novel, Doctorow (Homer & Langley) introduces an intriguing protagonist who poses sweeping questions about the composition of consciousness, the reliability of memory, and the existence of free will, and asks them again and again, sometimes philosophically, sometimes with a sense of alarm. The novel is structured as an extended series of conversations between Andrew, a cognitive neuroscientist by training, and an unnamed man who initially appears to be his psychotherapist. The book opens with Andrew's description of leaving his infant daughter with an ex-wife. When the baby's mother dies, Andrew claims to be too incapacitated by grief and self-doubt to care for the child. Paradoxically, Andrew who refers to himself in both the first and the third person also insists that he's incapable of emotion. It's not clear how much time has passed since he gave up the child, or how much time is passing as he tells his story, or if time for Andrew is linear at all. He recycles and synthesizes snippets of recollection, sometimes with details supplied by his questioner, and as he does he embellishes his history and reshapes its chronology. Despite their expansive themes and culturally significant imagery, Andrew's revelations are little more than clues to an amusing, if tedious, puzzle. Andrew believes that the brain cannot know itself, but the question is whether the reader can know Andrew's." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
E. L. Doctorow’s works of fiction include Homer & Langley, The March, Billy Bathgate, Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, City of God, Welcome to Hard Times, Loon Lake, World’s Fair, The Waterworks, and All the Time in the World. Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkner awards, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. In 2009 he was short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize, honoring a writer’s lifetime achievement in fiction, and in 2012 he won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, given to an author whose “scale of achievement over a sustained career [places] him in the highest rank of American literature.” In 2013 the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Gold Medal for Fiction.
Reading Group Guide
1. Near the beginning of the story, Andrew says that he is indirectly responsible for Briony’s death: “indirect—not directly causal.” How might he have reasoned that he was responsible for her death? Do you agree that Andrew ultimately has a hand in it, or not?
2. Andrew switches back and forth between telling the story in the first person and the third person, sometimes describing what happened to him, sometimes describing what happened to “Andrew.” Why might he do this switching back-and-forth? Did you notice any patterns in the moments at which Andrew switched from one form of narration to another?
3. In speaking to “Doc,” Andrew says, “Your field is the mind, mine is the brain.” What do you understand to be the difference between mind and brain, within the context of this book? Would the meaning of the title have changed for you, if it was called Andrew’s Mind instead of Andrew’s Brain?
4. Andrew says, “What else can we do as eaters of the fruit of knowledge but biologize ourselves?” Does the quest to “biologize ourselves” contain pitfalls or dangers? How might it relate to the tension, within the story, between the biology of the brain and the more intangible aspects of the mind?
5. Andrew describes the Wasatch mountains as ruling the town, as a “mountain bureaucracy” that negotiated the light and colonized the townspeople. Why might Andrew have decided to describe the mountains in such specific and unusual terms, as a “bureaucracy”? How might this connect with Andrew’s later experience with a different kind of bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.?
6. When Andrew connects Briony to the brain graph machine, he says, “I saw things more intimately Briony’s than if I had seen her undressed.” What does he mean by this? What are the implications of this “cephalic-invasive” voyeurism for Andrew and Briony’s relationship?
7. Mark Twain is a recurring motif in the book. Why do you think Andrew is so drawn to Twain? Think of when Andrew refers to the “imperial outrages annotated by MT in the last years of his life.” Twain lived through a different imperialistic era in America (the late 1800s and early 1900s), but how might this resonate with “imperial outrages” in Andrew’s own lifetime?
8. Andrew describes the possibility of a human yearning for a group brain, a larger social mind: “Perhaps we long for something like the situation these other creatures have— the ants, the bees— where the thinking is outsourced.” He mentions that this kind of thinking “brings us to politics.” What does he mean by this? How might this relate, specifically, to his encounters with the White House later in the book? What are other instances, in the book and in real life, when humans are drawn to this kind of “group brain” phenomenon?
9. Briony seems to transform Andrew. He speaks of how “watching her lifted me into a comparable state of happiness.” How do you think Briony manages to rescue Andrew from his “cold clear emotionless pond of silence”? What is it about her that inspires such life in him?
10. Andrew also remarks about Briony that he finds “redemption” in “the loving attentions of this girl.” Then, at the very end of the book, he describes how Mark Twain found a different kind of redemption in the world, when his children “remember this tale and laugh with love for their father.” What is similar about their two kinds of redemption? What is different?
11. How does love transform Andrew? Is it a permanent transformation, or is it temporary? Andrew describes love as “the blunt concussion that renders us insensible to despair.” He also describes the happiness that stems from love as a feeling “possibly induced by endormorphin, the brain’s opiate.” Why do you think Andrew gravitates towards physical metaphors to describe the power of love?
12. By the end of the story, how much did you trust or believe in the literal truth of what Andrew was saying? Did your attitude towards his narrative reliability change at all, over the course of the novel?