E.L. Doctorow has long operated in the shadow of the Transcendentalists: Emerson, who inspired his 2003 collection of essays, "Reporting the Universe"; Hawthorne, whose story "Wakefield," he updated in 2008. Like them, his great subject is consciousness, what he has called "a mind in the appalled contemplation of itself." Like them, he is a romantic, a true believer — in the myth of America as a shining city, despite its various and ongoing failures to live up to its better self.
His finest efforts embody this tension, between who we are and who we wish we were, between promise and despair. I think of "The Book of Daniel," narrated by the son of a Julius-and-Ethel-Rosenberg-like couple, or "The March," with its panoramic portrait of the chaos that was Sherman's march.
"Fiction goes everywhere," Doctorow suggests in his 2000 novel "City of God," "inside, outside, it stops, it goes, its action can be mental.... Novels can do anything in the dark horrors of consciousness." Inherent in such a statement is the faith that literature can (yes) transcend our vagaries, or at least cast our contradictions in stark relief.
Doctorow's 12th novel, "Andrew's Brain," operates out of precisely this intention. Constructed as a dialogue between a cognitive scientist named Andrew and an unnamed interlocutor, it begins by framing an irreconcilable dilemma: "If consciousness exists without the world, it is nothing, and if it needs the world to exist, it is still nothing."
Andrew is talking from an undisclosed location, so indistinct it may not be physical: He could be a phantom of his neurology. "[T]he great problem confronting neuroscience," he argues, "is how the brain becomes the mind. How that three-pound knitting ball makes you feel like a human being."
The implications are not only material but also spiritual. If consciousness is just a matter of neurons flashing, then what is the essence of humanity? "To have feelings, states of mind, memory, longing," Doctorow writes: That is what sets us apart. But "if we figure out how the brain gives us consciousness, we will have learned how to replicate consciousness" — which means "the end of the mythic human world we've had since the Bronze Age. The end of our dominion. The end of the Bible, and all the stories we've told ourselves until now."
If all that sounds a bit abstract, it can be, although "Andrew's Brain" is not exactly a novel of ideas. Rather, it is a memory book, a retrospective, in which Andrew looks back over his life to figure out how he came to be wherever he is. His is a hard-luck story, marked by a dead child and a dead wife, and a series of retreats and surrenders, beginning when he was a boy.
Bad things happen to him (or more accurately around him): the death of a motorist who veered into a tree so as not to hit him while he was sledding, an attack on his dachshund puppy by a red-tailed hawk in Washington Square. "Son," he recalls his father saying, "lots of kids were sleigh riding and it could have been any one of them in the path of that car. It just happened to be you. He didn't believe this any more than I did. He knew that if any kid was likely to cause a fatal crash it would be me."
These memories raise an enigmatic question: Do our experiences shape our personalities or is it the other way around? "Deep down," Andrew admits, "at the bottom of my soul, if such exists, I am finally unmoved by what I've done." What he's getting at is how our actions and attitudes create ripples, reverberations, a butterfly effect. To what extent is Andrew the agent of his disastrous circumstances, and what does it mean that they don't affect him much?
This is both a narrative and a philosophical issue — although the paradox is that the more Doctorow tilts toward the former, the more he undermines the book. It's a strange criticism, since fiction is an art of narrative, but the plot he develops in the final third of "Andrew's Brain" is so unlikely as to seem serendipitous, a radical right turn that runs the novel off the road.
At the heart of the shift are 9/11 and the excesses of the George W. Bush administration, which are meant to echo, in some sense, Andrew's own indifference and bad luck. To make the point explicit, Doctorow establishes a personal connection between the character and the president, as if to indicate that they are cut from the same careless cloth. "You are only the worst so far," Andrew tells the leader of the free world, "there is far worse to come. Perhaps not tomorrow. Perhaps not next year, but you have shown us the path into the Dark Wood."
Part of the idea is to use the novel as a device to talk to us directly, since unlike Andrew, we know what happens next. We know about Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, about the tea party, about the further radicalization of the right. At the same time, this only distances us from the political allegory Doctorow means to evoke. Why satirize Bush now, five years after he left office? What could possibly be the point? It seems too easy, like a joke to which we already know the punch line, as well as a distraction from the very real questions that motivate the first part of the book.
Even at its best, "Andrew's Brain" is lesser Doctorow; it lacks the heft of "City of God," which wrestles with similar considerations, or "Ragtime," with its exquisite structural unity. Still, when it works, it is because of the tension of not knowing, the information we do not have.
Consciousness, Andrew understands, is a conundrum; "Pretending," he tells us, "is the brain's work." What better subject for a novel, which is, after all, an extended game of let's pretend? "If I could go mad," Doctorow writes, "surely that would be better than the sanity of this meditative solitude."
Such fine madness. And yet, it is this — the provocation of being conscious — that "Andrew's Brain" cannot sustain.
Random House: 200 pp., $26