The titular Andrew is on his ex-wife’s doorstep, listening to her new husband cut him down to size:
“I’m sorry your young wife has died but I expect that she’s dead of some stupid mistake on your part, some untimely negligence, one of your thought experiments, or famous intellectual distractions, but in any event something to remind us all of that gift you have of leaving disaster in your wake.”
As it turns out, this isn’t particularly true, nor is it exactly false. Andrew’s second wife (after Martha, the one being protected by her giant new husband filling the door frame) perished somewhere in the rubble and collapsed towers on September 11, 2001. Her body was never found. Andrew, like most people beleaguered by grief, is adept at creating new ways to blame himself for her death. But the only truly stupid thing he is guilty of at this moment, is trying to leave his baby with Martha for fear of ruining his child’s life, too.
There’s something exhilarating about reading E.L. Doctorow’s newest novel, Andrew’s Brain. Unlike much of the author’s previous work, it’s unburdened by historical detail, like, say, The March (about the Civil War) or Ragtime (featuring a string of real-life characters from Harry Houdini to Henry Ford in imagined situations). Andrew’s Brain is Doctorow riffing solo, playing an intoxicating strain of crazy jazz using a self-described “freakishly depressive cognitive scientist klutz.” as his mouthpiece. There’s not much reason to believe what Andrew is saying throughout the book (presumably to his therapist, who is only referred to as “Doc”); he’s the archetypal unreliable narrator, which in turn matches his own sense of his unreliability as a human being. His only reliable trait, according to himself, is his capacity to cause disaster. After chopping through all the weeds of his self-loathing, though, he seems a regular guy. Isn’t every human being capable of making a mess out of things?
The novel operates within a small circle of players, namely Briony (Andrew's former student and eventual second wife ); Martha, his ex; and “Martha’s large husband.” The events that branch out from this odd quartet are relayed to Andrew’s therapist and expand outward until they include Briony’s parents, who are retired performing “diminutives,” (the descriptor Andrew prefers because “midget” is a term “derived from the insect the midge. And ‘little people’ is not much better”), and George W. Bush, for whom Andrew works as “the head of the Office Of Neurological Research in the White House basement.” (As it turns out, they were also once roomies at Yale.) Chaingang and Rumbum—Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, respectively—roam in and out of scenes like a jesting Shakespearean duo, and Doctorow gets to throw in some political barbs as the president is examined through Andrew’s proximity to him. (“His war was not going well. He’d invaded the wrong country. You can’t imagine the anxiety that produces.”)
Throughout this extended confession, Andrew makes asides, ruminating on the mind/brain paradox. He consistently undermines his therapist’s medical authority. More than once, he even tries to distinguish cognitive science from suffering, parsing out how his memories of Briony make him feel. The doctor/patient exchanges are often hilarious: their passive-aggressive interplay, their interruptions, and the doctor’s rising mistrust of Andrew’s increasingly elaborate yarns give the novel a momentum that is largely sustained. All of this begs the question: What, if anything, is actually being revealed about Andrew? Is he the disaster artist he assumes himself to be, or is he just like anyone else: a human operating in the world where disasters happen. Is he self-centered enough to consider himself the cause of an event as large as the attack on a city that did not spare his own wife?
Humans’ minds often have a way of convincing them they have a measure of control over events. Of course, the only place that’s actually true is in fiction. This narrator is not paranoid; the Andrew of Andrew’s Brain takes his orders from E.L. Doctorow, whose own name is suspiciously close to Doc (or, for that matter, “doctor”). Yet, by novel’s end, the reader’s sympathies might align most with Andrew’s impatience, who exclaims in a moment of exasperation, “I don’t know what I’m doing here.”