'Andrew's Brain': Author uses novel to offer criticism

E.L. Doctorow has a surprise hidden in the twisty folds of “Andrew’s Brain” (Random House, 200 pages, $26).

The deeply respected author, whose large body of work includes the classic novel “Ragtime,” offers an unusual narrative that takes us deeply inside one man’s head without much of a map to guide us through the terrain we encounter.

Andrew is reflecting on his life to someone he calls Doc, but his narration is far from linear or transparent. He often speaks of himself in the third person; he is unable to definitively separate fact from fiction; he nervously considers questions of culpability in his personal life.

Much is in question, including where he is and who Doc might really be (readers of Iowa City author Larry Baker’s “Love and Other Delusions” may recognize the sort of questions raised by Andrew and Doc’s exchanges).

For much of the book, “Andrew’s Brain” seems primarily concerned with the reliability of our internal narratives — the things we tell ourselves and others as we seek to make sense of our experience. But then the book takes a darker turn, and suddenly the shared consciousness and conscience of the people of the United States becomes the subject. The last portion of the novel is driven by a shared national tragedy and its aftermath.

Questions about who Andrew is include questions about who we all are.

Andrew frequently mentions his love of Mark Twain, an author who wrote some of America’s most beloved literature but who also was a bitingly sharp critic of his country (and of mankind generally).

With “Andrew’s Brain,” Doctorow highlights his own facility for pointed criticism of both individuals and the larger society.

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