NOVEL APPROACH: Minding sadness

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First Posted: 1/27/2014

There are many people who blame themselves for aspects gone awry in their lives; then there are those who take it a bit too far, adding not only their problems, but also the weight of everything around them to the mix. Like thousands of paper clips to one giant magnet, author E. L. Doctorow has created an unlikely protagonist in his latest novel, “Andrew’s Brain.”

Doctorow, who is famously known for his works “Ragtime,” “Billy Bathgate” and “The March,” has gone on to win many honors as well as finalist nominations for both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. In his latest work, readers meet Andrew, a brilliant but deeply remorseful cognitive scientist who, albeit cerebrally advanced, cannot grasp his misfortune.

As expected, Doctorow maintains a writing style all his own. Generally robust, every word pummels you toward a given scene, bracing while still managing to balance the tight-roped plot. In some ways, the novel is a circus of sorts — a bit ridiculous in the best of ways — and it becomes a one-man show as readers interpret the life of this brilliant but wayward narrator.

The novel reads as monologues, long and sometimes wretched, only to reveal Andrew’s most vulnerable thoughts. While Andrew’s conversation is verbose and wanders into third person, he is not talking to this readership. No, instead, whether a psychiatrist or secret emissary conversationalist stoically sat nearby, Andrew is divulging every detail that has led him to this very room, a room undefined and yet so seemingly small you feel imprisoned by it.

Andrew’s life story is far from orderly. Each sequence of his story darts around only to bring readers back to his current situation. In most cases, he is face to face with an undisclosed interviewer who, as time goes on, Andrew cannot even seem to take seriously. When Andrew is not meeting with the shadowed persona, he manages to write and call, demonstrating he is never far from communicating the internal anguish that is his life. After all, Andrew has gone through the loss of lovers and children only to know and later be both the abandoned and the abandoner.

In reading forward, we might question how reliable our narrator is; even the unknown interviewer begs the question a few times throughout. Whether it is the seed that is planted or the ridiculous nature of Andrew’s mishaps, it becomes hard to deduce what is fact from fiction. However, one thing rings true — regardless of Andrew’s shortcomings, at 83-years-old, and with 54 years of published work behind him, Doctorow continues his legacy as sharply skilled and satirical all the way through.

‘Andrew’s Brain’ by E. L. Doctorow Rating: W W W W