E.L. Doctorow doesn’t consider himself particularly science-minded. At the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, some intimidating classmates boasted they’d one day win Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry (some did). “My response was to run down the hall to the high school literary magazine office. That was my reaction to the world of science: to flee,” says Doctorow, the prizewinning author of Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and The March, who recently received the National Book Foundation’s 2013 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
“Scientists live for exactitude. They live for proofs and facts that are irreducible and explanations that are basic and immovable, whereas writers accept the ambiguity as a condition of truth,” he says.
Ambiguity is a dominant trait of Doctorow’s new novel, Andrew’s Brain. “I can tell you about my friend Andrew, the cognitive scientist. But it’s not pretty,” he writes by way of introduction. Andrew stands on the doorstep of his ex-wife and her husband, a Russian opera singer, proffering the infant daughter born of a second wife, Briony, who has recently died. What follows is a series of events as described by Andrew, who seems to be in conversation with a psychiatrist.
“[Andrew’s Brain] proceeded to generate itself from one image to another, and it turned out that because of Andrew’s being who he was and suffering as he did it was impossible to tell the difference between what really had happened or what he’d only imagined had happened,” says Doctorow. “I think that breaks a few rules, which I’ve always been pleased to do.”
We don’t know where Andrew is. We don’t know when he is. We don’t know if or how he is responsible for the death of his second wife or the child he had with his first—though he heavily bears the guilt. Is he “Andrew the Pretender,” the Russian baritone calls him, “...whose well-meaning, gentle, kindly disposed, charming ineptitude is the modus operandi of the deadliest of killers”? (Andrew takes the slur in stride. “Opera is the art of unconstrained emotions. Something happens and they sing about it for hours,” Doctorow writes.) Or is he a victim, too?
Andrew applies his empirical mind to trying to make sense of the situation. He ruminates on the nature of consciousness with observations ranging from insightful to absurd. “How can I think about my brain when it’s my brain doing the thinking? So is this brain pretending to be me thinking about it? I can’t trust anyone these days, least of all myself. I am a mysteriously generated consciousness, and no comfort to me that it’s one of billions,” he lectures one class. “That’s what I said to them and then picked up my books and walked out of the room,” Doctorow writes.
The natural impetus to dissect and categorize Andrew’s Brain may frustrate deductive readers, but there is hope. “Several of the advance readers have told me when they have finished the book they’ve started it again immediately and read it through twice, and then they began not to ask those [factual] questions anymore,” says Doctorow. “But it is a book, finally, about his brain and his sense of almost betrayal by it. When he says, ‘How can I think about my brain when it’s my brain doing the thinking?’—that line as it appeared on the page gave me enormous pleasure, because I thought that was really central to the entire book.”
The key may be to seek pleasure in the inquiry. “I think any good novel exists in the realm of substantial numbers of interpretation,” he says.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.