Saturday, January 25, 2014

Subtlety ("Andrew's Brain" by E.L. Doctorow)

After the first twenty pages of E.L. Doctorow's newest novel Andrew's Brain, the reader is presented with a decision:  continue reading, or abandon the novel completely. Technically, this is the same decision every reader faces when they begin a book, especially when the opening pages are less than auspicious; after all, every reader is haunted by their very own troupe of unfinished books, which often appear--at the bedside, on overlooked shelves, in library fees--like Dickensian spirits come to remind us of our unfulfilled selves. No one enjoys leaving a book unfinished, regardless of how unfailingly dull or offensive its first moments might be, because every book is a promise in its own way...and by setting it aside permanently, we are seeing a promise go unfulfilled, a path go untrod.

However, Andrew's Brain is another matter. The first half of Doctorow's novel is, for lack of a better term, insufferable. The greatest cause of this problem--in fact, the only cause--is the narrator, whose entire story is delivered via dialogue with a nameless psychiatrist. Sometimes he shifts into third-person, telling his psychiatrist what "Andrew" did recently, as though he were Doctorow himself outlining the novel to an editor, and all lines between book and real life were blurred; the prose is frequently interrupted by [thinking], which feels like the fossil evidence of a dramatic script that once existed before Doctorow razed the entire thing and began again; and the entire conversation--all 200 pages of it--is rendered without quotation marks or indicators of any kind, no "Andrew said" or "the doctor replied," making it less of a verbal back-and-forth and more of a confusing puzzle.

All of which leads us to the decision:  continue or stop. At this point in the book, the impulse to abandon Andrew's Brain will be tempting, and rightly so:  in addition to the aggravating stylistic and narrative choices, the plot is little more than the story of a professor who falls in love with a cheerleader--one of his undergraduate students--while she continues to date her quarterback boyfriend--also one of his undergraduate students--and holds casual conversations with his ex-wife and her new husband that are so philosophical and jargon-laden that they exist deep in the jungles of Farce. But this is where that impulse to flee from Doctorow's book becomes complicated. Were this the first novel of a heretofore unpublished writer, the decision would be easy:  we would stick up our noses, highlight its flaws to ourselves, and dismiss the entire thing as the ramblings of a workshop spawn. However, this is E.L. Doctorow, not just one of America's most respected living writers, but one of the few American authors--living or dead--who can lay claim to having written a Great American Novel, Ragtime.* He knows how novels are written, understands how to develop nuance and meaning, and keeps everything in balance from beginning to end; he is not the sort to spin cliched dribble without a reason, and it's that elusive reason--the idea that it has to be somewhere--that gives us pause before setting the book aside for good.

Which, as it turns out, is the reality of the situation. As the first hundred pages give way to the second, the truth about Andrew becomes clear, and those strange, rambling, insufferable opening passages begin to make much more sense in the grand scheme of the novel...which presents yet another series of problems for Doctorow, only these aren't as easy to overcome. If, after the first 20 pages, you decide to continue reading, your mind will still need to justify the continued agony to itself; after all, it will be another 80 pages before the underpinnings of Andrew's life begin to become less abstract, which is a long road to walk. And so your mind begins to generate ideas, one after the other, and when you compare the interpretations with what we hold in our hands, our mind quickly comes to a conclusion:  Andrew is insane. It's the only plausible reason that someone with Doctorow's skills would write something so hackneyed, so unrealistic, so burdened by haughty adjectives and self-righteous monologues. It reads like the work of a 17 year-old, his dog-eared thesaurus and a stack of New Yorker magazines at his side...even though the narrator himself is middle-aged and a professor of cognitive science.

There is another novel that comes to mind as this realization takes shape, this one also concerned with an unreliable narrators who might be crazy:  Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire. I say "might be" in reference to Pale Fire, not to draw parallels between Nabokov and Doctorow's books, but because the mental status of Nabokov's narrator remains uncertain well after the novel's close, whereas there is little question about Andrew. (In fact, as the volumes of critical attention paid to Pale Fire attest, there is very little agreement as to whether Nabokov's character, Charles Kinbote, even exists at all.**) What does differentiate Nabokov's classic with Doctorow's novel is subtlety:  the former's novel is so complex and measured, even as Kinbote inadvertently reveals his delusional mental state, that questions persist, while the latter's is so straightforward  that questions become irrelevant. Readers and critics alike return to Pale Fire because it's both a great work of literature and a great mystery, a novel that allows you to swim in its depths without ever seeing the shore. Andrew's Brain, on the other hand, is neither a great work nor an interesting mystery, and to swim in its waters is to understand why a puddle will never compare to the ocean.

*As a sidenote, I should add that the whole idea of The Great American Novel--a singular work of literature that encompasses every fantastic and paradoxical element of American life, people, and history--is preposterous. However, should we ever need to nominate a book that best fits the complex nature of our country, Ragtime would be a commendable, if not entirely final, choice.

**Doctorow's ironic little ploy of making his unreliable and insane narrator a professor in cognitive science would be interesting if it weren't laughably sophomoric, almost like writing a novel about a proctologist who gets hemorrhoids. I'd be willing to concede that, just maybe, Andrew isn't a professor at all...but Doctorow doesn't even write his novel in a way that would allow this possibility.