Andrew's Brain

( 12 )

Overview

This brilliant novel by 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, 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. As he peels back the layers of his strange story, we are led to question what we ...
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Andrew's Brain: A Novel

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Overview

This brilliant novel by 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, 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. As he peels 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. Probing, mischievous, and profound, Andrew’s Brain is a singular achievement in the canon of an American master.
 
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“Too compelling to put down . . . fascinating, sometimes funny, often profound . . . Andrew is a provocatively interesting and even sympathetic character. . . . The novel seamlessly combines Doctorow’s remarkable prowess as a literary stylist with deep psychological storytelling pitting truth against delusion, memory and perception, consciousness and craziness. . . . [Doctorow] takes huge creative risks—the best kind.”USA Today
 
Andrew’s Brain is cunning. . . . [A] sly book . . . This babbling Andrew is a casualty of his times, binding his wounds with thick wrappings of words, ideas, bits of story, whatever his spinning mind can unspool for him. . . . One of the things that makes [Andrew] such a terrific comic creation is that he’s both maddeningly self-delusive and scarily self-aware: He’s a fool, but he’s no innocent. . . . Andrew may not be able to enjoy his brain, but Doctorow, freely choosing to inhabit this character’s whirligig consciousness, can.”The New York Times Book Review
 
“A tantalising tour de force . . . a journey worth taking . . . With exhilarating brio, the book plays off . . . two contrasting takes on mind and brain. . . . [Andrew’s Brain encompasses] an astonishing range of modes: vaudeville humour, tragic romance, philosophical speculation. . . . It fizzes with intellectual energy, verbal pyrotechnics and satiric flair.”The Sunday Times (London)
 
“Dramatic . . . cunning and beautiful . . . strange and oddly fascinating, this book: a musing, a conjecture, a frivolity, a deep interrogatory, a hymn.”San Francisco Chronicle

“Provocative . . . a story aswirl in a whirlpool of neuroscience, human relations, loss, guilt and recent American history . . . Doctorow reveals his mastery in the sheen of a text that is both window and mirror. Reading his work is akin to soaring in a glider. Buoyed by invisible breath, readers encounter stunning vistas stretching to horizons they’ve never imagined.”The Plain Dealer

“Andrew’s ruminations can be funny, and his descriptions gorgeous.”—Associated Press

“[An] evocative, suspenseful novel about the deceptive nature of human consciousness.”More
 
“A quick and acutely intelligent read.”Entertainment Weekly

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Cognitive scientist Andrew, the neurological center of this book, is talking and talking, sometimes in the third person, about his accidental involvement in traumas beginning with the loss of his beloved pet dachshund and his sweet baby daughter. As his story proceeds, elements of the fantastic and unreliability begin to creep in, including stories of White House reveries, causing us to question our faith in him or even his existence. E.L. Doctorow's Andrew's Brain is an unsettling masterpiece, a work that extends our sense of what fiction can do.

The New York Times Book Review - Terrence Rafferty
…short and relatively circumscribed—a miniature, like a Cornell box…Andrew's Brain is in most respects clearly a cautionary tale about the perils of trying to think yourself out of pain. But the novel's tone is weirdly sprightly. Doctorow amuses himself here with abrupt, hairpin swerves of mood, from lyrical to tragic to satiric to baggy-pants goofy, and appears to be having a much better time than the character he's pretending to be. Andrew's in hell, but his creator's in heaven. And maybe that's what this wacky, dead serious novel is, in the end, all about: the uselessness and the pleasure of the mind's operations. Andrew, because he has been confined to his brain unwillingly, condemned by the kangaroo court of history, can't take much joy in its hectic machinery. One of the things that make him such a terrific comic creation is that he's both maddeningly self-delusive and scarily self-aware: He's a fool, but he's no innocent.
Publishers Weekly
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. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-01
Andrew is brainier than most since he's a cognitive scientist preoccupied with the biopsychological question of how brain becomes mind--and over the course of the novel, readers discover that the workings of his mind have become increasingly problematic. Doctorow opens the story with a narrative cliché--a desperate parent and infant child showing up on a neighbor's doorstep in frigid weather. In this case, the parent is Andrew and the infant, his daughter Willa. Andrew is distraught by the death of his beloved young wife, Briony, and in this distressed state, he goes to the home of his former wife, Martha, and her husband, an opera singer. One of the reasons for Andrew and Martha's divorce turns out to have been the death of their young child, a tragedy Martha continues to hold Andrew responsible for. Martha takes Willa from Andrew's hands, and by the end of the novel, we find out that 12 years have passed, and Willa has been raised by Martha and her husband. The form of the novel is largely a dialogue between Andrew and his psychiatrist, though the latter is a fairly subdued interlocutor, making the occasional comment and raising the occasional question. When Doctorow focuses his attention on Andrew, his philosophical preoccupations as a cognitive scientist, and his flashbacks to the development of his relationship with Briony, his former student, the chronicle is engaging, moving and humorous, but about two-thirds of the way through, the author loses his way. Andrew briefly becomes a high school science teacher and then (supposedly) a science adviser to the president, who had been Andrew's roommate at Yale. Brilliant in parts but unsatisfying as a whole.
From the Publisher
Praise for Andrew’s Brain
 
“Too compelling to put down . . . fascinating, sometimes funny, often profound . . . Andrew is a provocatively interesting and even sympathetic character. . . . The novel seamlessly combines Doctorow’s remarkable prowess as a literary stylist with deep psychological storytelling pitting truth against delusion, memory and perception, consciousness and craziness. . . . [Doctorow] takes huge creative risks—the best kind.”USA Today
 
Andrew’s Brain is cunning. . . . [A] sly book . . . This babbling Andrew is a casualty of his times, binding his wounds with thick wrappings of words, ideas, bits of story, whatever his spinning mind can unspool for him. . . . One of the things that makes [Andrew] such a terrific comic creation is that he’s both maddeningly self-delusive and scarily self-aware: He’s a fool, but he’s no innocent. . . . Andrew may not be able to enjoy his brain, but Doctorow, freely choosing to inhabit this character’s whirligig consciousness, can.”The New York Times Book Review
 
“A tantalising tour de force . . . a journey worth taking . . . With exhilarating brio, the book plays off . . . two contrasting takes on mind and brain. . . . [Andrew’s Brain encompasses] an astonishing range of modes: vaudeville humour, tragic romance, philosophical speculation. . . . It fizzes with intellectual energy, verbal pyrotechnics and satiric flair.”The Sunday Times (London)
 
“Dramatic . . . cunning and beautiful . . . strange and oddly fascinating, this book: a musing, a conjecture, a frivolity, a deep interrogatory, a hymn.”San Francisco Chronicle

“Provocative . . . a story aswirl in a whirlpool of neuroscience, human relations, loss, guilt and recent American history . . . Doctorow reveals his mastery in the sheen of a text that is both window and mirror. Reading his work is akin to soaring in a glider. Buoyed by invisible breath, readers encounter stunning vistas stretching to horizons they’ve never imagined.”The Plain Dealer
 
“Andrew’s ruminations can be funny, and his descriptions gorgeous.”—Associated Press

“[An] evocative, suspenseful novel about the deceptive nature of human consciousness.”More
 
“A quick and acutely intelligent read.”Entertainment Weekly
 
“Mind-bending . . . a fascinating and perplexing examination of a human being, invented by Doctorow but very real, who has suffered great trauma and desperately needs to believe he is not a monster.”St. Louis Post-Dispatch
 
“Absorbing . . . In Doctorow’s capable hands, Andrew is revealed to be a unique and sympathetic character—you’re just never sure whether he’s a redeemed lout or criminally insane. . . . Besides the wonderful prose, the book has humor and warmth and entertaining twists of plot.”Houston Chronicle
 
“This is a brief book and, like many of the author’s recent offerings, a seemingly simple pleasure. But Doctorow cannot do anything simply, and he can’t help but write well. His lines in passing are the sort that other writers might work for years to perfect. And his insights, beautifully embedded in an irresistible story, are worthy of the best sort of big book.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“[Doctorow] locates and amplifies the human emotions that lend poignancy to particular moments in individual lives. . . . He illuminates these concepts by taking us inside the mind of a fully formed figure—a man whose pain, fear, desire and suffering we come to know and identify with. The journey from this novel’s unsettling, parabolical beginning to its ambiguous end is frequently disorienting, but it’s worth the trip.”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“In stunning command of every aspect of this taut, unnerving, riddling tale, virtuoso Doctorow confronts the persistent mysteries of the mind—trauma and memory, denial and culpability—as he brings us back to one deeply scarring time of shock and lies, war and crime. Writing in concert with Twain, Poe, and Kafka, Doctorow distills his mastery of language, droll humor, well-primed imagination, and political outrage into an exquisitely disturbing, morally complex, tragic, yet darkly funny novel of the collective American unconscious and human nature in all its perplexing contrariness. Word will travel quickly about this intense and provocative novel by best-selling literary giant Doctorow.”Booklist (starred review)
 
“Through this dialectic narrative, Doctorow connects to the common theme seen throughout his work: one’s history is often a battle between memory and self-struggle to maintain an image of morality and adequacy. Doctorow deftly captures the complex but beautiful vagaries of life in clean, simple language.”Library Journal (starred review)

Praise for E. L. Doctorow
 
“On every level, [Doctorow’s] work is powerful. . . . His sensitivity to language is perfectly balanced, and complemented by a gigantic vision.”—Jennifer Egan
 
“E. L. Doctorow is a national treasure, and I mean this in a very specific sense: He has rewarded us, these forty-five years, with a vision of ourselves, as a people, a vision possessed of what I might call ‘aspirational verve’—he sees us clearly and tenderly, just as we are, but also sees past that—to what we might, at our best, become.”—George Saunders
 
“[His great topic is] the reach of American possibility, in which plain lives take on the cadences of history. . . . Doctorow’s prose tends to create its own landscape, and to become a force that works in opposition to the power of social reality.”—Don DeLillo
 
“A writer of dazzling gifts and boundless imaginative energy.”—Joyce Carol Oates, The New Yorker
 
“One of our greatest living writers . . . a virtuosic storyteller with enormous range.”People
 
“Doctorow is a magician. . . . His prose is dazzling.”Vogue

From the Hardcover edition.

New York Times Book Review
“Andrew's Brain is cunning … [a] sly book … This babbling Andrew is a casualty of his times, binding his wounds with thick wrappings of words, ideas, bits of story, whatever his spinning mind can unspool for him … One of the things that makes [Andrew] such a terrific comic creation is that he's both maddeningly self-delusive and scarily self-aware: He's a fool, but he's no innocent …. Andrew may not be able to enjoy his brain, but Doctorow, freely choosing to inhabit this character's whirligig consciousness, can.”
Library Journal
★ 10/15/2013
In Doctorow's The March, readers are led into the mind of Union army general William Tecumseh Sherman as his troops burn their way through the Carolinas, leaving a wake of physical and psychological destruction. Here, the story master delivers the confined thoughts of Andrew, a troubled cognitive scientist, whose conversation with an unknown questioner details the dissolution of his own relationships, career, and connection with his child. Andrew's frantic language paints an increasingly fragmented worldview marred by disorientation. Though sardonic, he also injects a heavy dose of levity into his retellings, speaking to an optimistic humanism in the face of despair. Periodically challenged by the questioner, Andrew is forced to confront his tendency toward a revisionist history and critically focus on the emotional impact of his actions. VERDICT Through this dialectic narrative, Doctorow connects to the common theme seen throughout his work: one's history is often a battle between memory and self-struggle to maintain an image of morality and adequacy. Doctorow deftly captures the complex but beautiful vagaries of life in clean, simple language. [See Prepub Alert, 6/24/13.]—Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400068814
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/14/2014
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 121,519
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

E. L. Doctorow
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.

Biography

E. L. Doctorow, one of America's preeminent authors, has received the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice), the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation For Fiction, and the William Dean Howells medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has also published a volume of selected essays Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution, and a play, Drinks Before Dinner, which was produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival. He resides in New Rochelle, New York.

Author biography courtesy of Penguin Group (USA).

Good To Know

Doctorow began his career as a reader for Columbia Pictures. He went on to work as an editor for New American Library in the early 1960s, and then served as chief editor at Dial Press from 1964 to 1969.

Critics assailed Doctorow for delivering a commencement address critical of President George W. Bush at Hofstra University in May 2004.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Edgar Lawrence Doctorow (full name; named for Edgar Allan Poe)
      Edgar Laurence Doctorow
    2. Hometown:
      Sag Harbor, New York, and New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 6, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      A.B., Kenyon College, 1952; postgraduate study, Columbia University, 1952-53
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

I

I can tell you about my friend Andrew, the cognitive scientist. But it’s not pretty. One evening he appeared with an infant in his arms at the door of his ex-wife, Martha. Because Briony, his lovely young wife after Martha, had died.

Of what?

We’ll get to that. I can’t do this alone, Andrew said, as Martha stared at him from the open doorway. It happened to have been snowing that night, and Martha was transfixed by the soft creature-like snowflakes alighting on Andrew’s NY Yankees hat brim. Martha was like that, enrapt by the peripheral things as if setting them to music. Even in ordinary times, she was slow to respond, looking at you with her large dark rolling protuberant eyes. Then the smile would come, or the nod, or the shake of the head. Meanwhile the heat from her home drifted through the open door and fogged up Andrew’s eyeglasses. He stood there behind his foggy lenses like a blind man in the snowfall and was without volition when at last she reached out, gently took the swaddled infant from him, stepped back, and closed the door in his face.

This was where?

Martha lived then in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York, in a neighborhood of large homes of different styles—Tudor, Dutch Colonial, Greek Revival—most of them built in the 1920s and ’30s, houses set back from the street with tall old Norway maples the predominant trees. Andrew ran to his car and came back with a baby carrier, a valise, two plastic bags filled with baby needs. He banged on the door: Martha, Martha! She is six months old, she has a name, she has a birth certificate. I have it here, open the door please, Martha, I am not abandoning my daughter, I just need some help, I need help!

The door opened and Martha’s husband, a large man, stood there. Put those things down, Andrew, he said. Andrew did as he was told and Martha’s large husband thrust the baby back into his arms. You’ve always been a fuck-up, Martha’s large husband said. 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.

Andrew put the baby in the baby carrier that lay on the ground, lifted the carrier with the baby, and walked slowly back to his car, nearly losing his balance on the slick path. He fastened a seat belt around the carrier in the backseat, returned to the house, picked up the plastic bags and the valise and carried them to the car. When everything was secured, he closed the car door, drew himself up, turned, and found Martha standing there with a shawl around her shoulders. All right, she said.

[thinking]

Go on. . . .

No, I’m just thinking of something I read about the pathogenesis of schizophrenia and bipolar disease. The brain biologists are going to get to that with their gene sequencing, finding the variations in the genome—those protein suckers attached to the teleology. They’ll give them numbers and letters, snipping away a letter here, adding a number there, and behold the disease will be no more. So, Doc, you’re in trouble with your talking cure.

Don’t be too sure.

Trust me, you’ll be on unemployment. What else can we do as eaters of the fruit of the tree of knowledge but biologize ourselves? Expunge the pain, extend the life. You want another eye, say, in the back of your head? That can be arranged. Put your rectum in your knee? Not a problem. Even give you wings if you want, though the result would not be flying aloft but more like giant skips, floating megastrides as on those tracks that are like flattened escalators moving along the long airport corridors. And how do we know God would not want this, perfecting his fucked-up imperfect idea of life as an irremediable condition? We’re his backup plan, his fail-safe. God works through Darwin.

So Martha took the baby after all?

I think also of how we decay in our rotting coffins, and how we reincarnate, the little microgenetic fragments of us sucked into the gut of a blind worm that rises it knows not why to wiggle in the rain-soaked soil only to die on the sharp beak of a house wren. Hey, that’s my living genome-fragged ID shat from the sky and landing with a plop on the branch of a tree and dripping over the branch like a wet bandage. And lo! I am become a nutrient of a tree fighting for its life. That’s true, you know, how those immobile standing-fast vascular creatures silently struggle for their existence as do we with one another, trees fighting for the same sun, the same soil in which they root themselves, and strewing the seeds that will become their forest enemies, like the princes to their king fathers in the ancient empires. But they’re not completely motionless. In a high wind they do their dance of despair, the trees in heavy leaf swaying this way and that, throwing their arms up in their helpless fury of being what they are. . . . Well, it’s a short step from anthropomorphism to hearing voices.

You hear voices?

Ah, I knew that would get your attention. Usually as I’m falling asleep. In fact I know I’m falling asleep when I hear them. And that wakes me up. I didn’t want to tell you this and here I am telling you.

What do they say?

I don’t know. Weird things. But I don’t really hear them. I mean, they are definitely voices but at the same time they’re soundless.

Soundless voices.

Yes. It’s as if I hear the meanings of the words that are spoken without the sound. I hear the meanings but I know they are words that are spoken. Usually by different people.

Who are these people?

I don’t know any of them. One girl asked me to sleep with her.

Well, that’s normal—a man would dream that.

It’s more than a dream. And I didn’t know her. A girl in a long summer frock down to her ankles. And she wore running shoes. She had delicate freckles under her eyes, and her face seemed pale with sunlight even as she stood in the shade. Pretty enough to break your heart! She took my hand.

Well, that’s more than a voice, certainly more than a soundless voice.

I think what happens is that I hear the meaning and provide an illustration in my mind. . . .

So, might we get back to Andrew the cognitive scientist?

I find myself reluctant to tell you that I hear the soundless voices too when I’m up and about in my daily life. But why shouldn’t I? There was a morning on my way to work, for instance, when I had picked up my coffee and newspaper from the deli and was waiting at a stoplight. Watching the red seconds run down. And a voice said: As long as you’re standing there, why don’t you fix the screen door. It was so real, so close to an actual sounded voice, that I turned around to see who was in back of me. But there was no one, I was alone on that corner.

And what was the illustration you provided when you heard that remark?

It was an older woman. I put myself in her kitchen doorway. It was some sort of broken-down farm. I thought it might be in western Pennsylvania. There was an old flatbed truck in the yard. The woman wore a faded housedress. She looked up from the sink, totally unsurprised, and said that. At the kitchen table a small girl was drawing with a crayon. Was she the woman’s granddaughter? I didn’t know. She looked at me and turned back to her drawing and suddenly violently scribbled all over it with her crayon—whatever she had drawn she was now destroying.

Are you in fact the man you call your friend Andrew, the cognitive scientist who brought an infant child to the home of his ex-wife?

Yes.

And are you telling me that you dreamt you ran away and found yourself standing at the screen door of some broken-down farmhouse somewhere?

Well, it was not a dream, it was a voice. Try to pay attention. This voice brought back to me how it was when I needed to get away after my baby with Martha had died and my life with Martha with it. I didn’t care where I went. I got on the first bus I saw at the Port Authority. I fell asleep on the bus, and when I woke it was winding its way through the hills of western Pennsylvania. We stopped at a small travel agency in one of these towns and I got off to walk around the town square: It was two or three in the morning, everything was closed of what there was, a drugstore, a five-and-ten, a picture framer, a movie theater, and taking up all one side of the square a sort of Romanesque courthouse. In the square of dead brown grass was a greenish-black Civil War statue of a man on a horse. By the time I got back to the travel agency, the bus was gone. So I walked out of town, over the railroad tracks, past some warehouses, and about a mile or two away—it was dawn now—I came upon this broken-down scrabbly-looking farm. I was hungry. I walked into the yard. No sign of life there so I walked around to the back of the house and found myself standing at a screen door. And there were these two just as I’d made them up or thought I had, the child and the old woman. And the old woman was the one who’d made that remark the morning I stood with my coffee and paper in Washington, D.C., waiting for the light to change.

So what you’re saying is that you ran away and found yourself at the actual screen door of some broken-down farmhouse somewhere in Pennsylvania that you’d previously imagined?

No, dammit. That’s not what I’m claiming. I did get on that bus and the trip was exactly as I’ve said. The shabby little town, the dirt farm. And when I got to the house it’s true that those two people were in the kitchen, the old woman and the child with her crayons. There was also a roll of flypaper hanging under the ceiling light, and it was black with flies sticking to it. So it was all very real. But nobody asked me to fix the screen door.

No?

I’m the one who suggested that I fix it. I was tired and hungry. I didn’t see a man anywhere. I thought if I offered some sort of handyman’s help, they’d let me wash up, give me something to eat. I didn’t want charity. So I smiled and said: Good morning. I’m a bit lost, but I see your screen door needs mending and I think I can fix it if you will offer me a cup of coffee. I’d noticed the door couldn’t close properly, the upper hinge had pulled away from the frame, the mesh was slack. As a screen door it was quite useless, which is why they had hung flypaper from the ceiling light cord. So you see, it was not a preternatural vision that drew me to that place. I had taken that bus ride and seen that farm and those two people and then blanked them out of my mind until the morning in Washington when I was standing on the corner waiting for the red seconds to wind down and heard—

You were then working in Washington?

—yes, as a government consultant, though I can’t tell you doing what—and heard the voice of the old woman saying more or less what I had said when I appeared outside her screen door. Except in her voice the words had a judgmental tone—as if I had given her an insight into my hapless existence, to the effect of: “As long as you’re standing there why don’t you for once make yourself useful and fix the screen door.” There’s a term for this kind of experience in your manual, is there not?

Yes. But I’m not sure we’re talking about the same kind of experience.

We have our manual too, you know. Your field is the mind, mine is the brain. Will the twain ever meet? What’s important about that bus trip is that I had reached the point where I felt anything I did would bring harm to anyone I loved. Can you know what that’s like, Mr. Analyst sitting in his ergonomic chair? I couldn’t know in advance how to avoid disaster, as if no matter what I did something terrible would follow. So I got on that bus, just to get away, I didn’t care. I wanted to tamp down my life, devote myself to mindless daily minutiae. Not that I had succeeded. What he said made that clear.

What who said?

Martha’s large husband.

When Andrew stepped inside the front door he saw Martha’s large husband putting on his coat and hat and Martha walking up the stairs with the baby in her arms while turning back the little hood, unzipping the snowsuit. Andrew took note of a large well-appointed house, much grander than the house he and Martha had lived in as man and wife. The entrance hall had a dark parquet floor. Out of the corner of his eye he saw to his left a comfortable living room with stuffed furniture, and a fireplace with a fire going, and on the wall over the mantel the portrait of what he took to be some Russian czar in a long robe with an Orthodox cross on a chain and a crown that looked like an embroidered cap. To the right was a book-lined study with Martha’s black Steinway. The staircase, carpeted in dark red with brass rods at the bottoms of the risers, was elegantly curved with a mahogany banister that Martha was not holding as she mounted the stairs with the baby in her arms. Martha wore slacks. Andrew noticed that she had maintained her figure and he found himself considering, as he hadn’t for many years, the shape and tensile strength of her behind. The coat of Martha’s large husband was of the round-shouldered style with a caped collar and sleeves that flared out. Nobody wore coats like that anymore. The hat, a sporty crushproof number, was too small for Martha’s large husband’s head.

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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?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 12 )
Rating Distribution

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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 14, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    The eponymous Andrew reminds me of the Al Capp (Li¿l Abner) char

    The eponymous Andrew reminds me of the Al Capp (Li’l Abner) character, Joe Mxstlpk, who walked under a black cloud and was followed by a calamity wherever he went. That is the story told by this Andrew, presumably to a psychologist or “shrink,” of his life: the trials and tribulations, loves and losses, highs and lows.

    In a way, the novel also reminds me somewhat of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” except that it is written in clear prose and complete sentences. The tale is related in a disjointed stream of consciousness, flitting from topic to topic, but is grouped into eleven “chapters,” various phases of Andrew’s life. Apparently, Mr. Doctorow set out to write a book of very different quality than his previous efforts, which include such popular novels as “World’s Fair,” “Billy Bathgate,” Loon Lake” and “Ragtime” [which also found its way into a hit musical].

    It is unfortunate that this novel may not attract readers of his previous work, although it should gain plenty of critical acclaim. As such, it is recommended.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 26, 2014

    E.L. Doctorow is one of my favorite writers -- probably my favor

    E.L. Doctorow is one of my favorite writers -- probably my favorite living author. I've read everything by him and have read many of his books more than once. This book ended up being a great disappointment. Sure, all the beautiful poetic prose is there but it quickly turns into a long, boring political diatribe. OK, we get it. Doctorow doesn't like Bush. I didn't need 200 grueling pages to figure that one out. It's a one-sided view into a presidency wrapped up in a mean-spirited, elitist binder. What could have been a great story ends up being a petty political treatise.

    Get off your soapbox, Doctorow! It's not a good look for you. Other books weave in your political leanings but not in such a boring and uninspired way. (And, actually, the Blame Bush methodology has become, in general, just a little tired and overworked these days.) This book, which I so long anticipated and started reading with fanaticism, became drudgery half-way through. I celebrated when I finally got to the end, not because it was a great book but because it wasn't, and because I want to read great things by Doctorow, not whiney harangues

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2014

    I wish they had a zero star rating. Luckily, the book was very

    I wish they had a zero star rating. Luckily, the book was very short so I suffered through to the end. While starting with an interesting concept, the writer got lost about halfway through and turned to the old reliable September 11th link followed by completely directionless whining about President Bush. A complete waste of time and money.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2014

    DON'T READ THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Probably the worst book ever!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2014

    Andrrw

    What book ae you at with him.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2014

    Gravie

    You know. Sits down her head in her hands

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 18, 2014

    Complex, confusing, intriguing. We don't know if Andrew is talki

    Complex, confusing, intriguing. We don't know if Andrew is talking to himself, a psychologist, a guard, an orderly. We don't know if Andrew is split into himself, his brain, and the third party. Still through all of this we gain an understanding of this human and the many terrible incidents he's had to live through. Humor does exist, too, in the insights into the workings of the White House. A challenge, but fulfilling when you're done. If you're into writing styles, this is one to savor.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2014

    I would give the book a 3.5. It is a not light, easy read. On su

    I would give the book a 3.5. It is a not light, easy read. On subject matter I would give it a three. However, I liked the way of storytelling and would give the style of narration a four. It took me a while to realize that Andrew is probably talking to his mental health therapist and that Andrew, in my opinion, is insane (literally has delusions). The story winds about in terms of time and place. Unlike many other reviewers, I found I believed Andrew's version of the facts.

    The book is more of a novella or long short story than a true novel. At first I did not like Andrew; I saw him as a self-absorbed academic. However, he convinced me that he really did love his second wife.

    The piece reads like a work of modern fiction where one wishes that it was less realistic but rather had a stronger plot or central theme. Its appeal is more to the head then to the heart. It reminded me a little of either a Kafka or Chekov story.

    I would call this book an interesting rather than entertaining work of fiction.
    Thanks to Random House and Edelweiss for providing me with an advance review copy of the book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2014

    Misty

    Hi!

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2014

    Andrew

    My birthday is tomarow

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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