|E. L. Doctorow|
A man named Andrew sits in an office speaking to a probing unidentified inquisitor/counselor about the life and loves of a man named Andrew. Needing, for reasons unidentified, to speak of himself in the third person.
We don’t know exactly where he is, or why, or why he is wherever he is or why he speaks to this person, but we know from the first that he despairs. Perhaps trauma. Perhaps PTSD. Perhaps merely one too many losses.
In this compact novella Doctorow presents a portrait of a man who has suffered much for what might otherwise be considered negligence. We discover early on that he lost a child with his first wife, and when his second much younger wife passes [we learn much later how] he brings their newborn baby to his former wife and her boorish husband, as if repayment, but in truth, in need of someone to care for the child, because he cannot. We’re not sure why not and the story hinges on this moment.
As Andrew recounts his tale, and all the nuances and details of his life and marriages, we meet a man conflicted and regretful, but also defensive. Questioning. A brilliant professor, he has to struggle through half his life before he begins to understand himself and, as the title suggests, the workings of his own brain.
But when did the brain become the mind, he asks? And the reader might ask the same, as he expounds on the workings of the brain, that organ that dictates to all others, including the heart. As the great DeLillo said in a recent commentary on Doctorow's writing, “...the reach of American possibility, in which plain lives take on the cadences of history.” Yes, Andrew’s monologue conveys a much larger meaning.
I admire every novel E. L. Doctorow has written, from the remarkable “Ragtime” and “The Book of Daniel” to the starkly chilling “Billy Bathgate” and the post-modernist “Homer & Langley” and “The March.” He has won just about every great literary award and still publishes enigmatic short stories in literary magazines like The New Yorker. I saw him speak a few years ago at UCI about science and humanity and he was truly spellbinding.
A new novel from this master is cause for joy and I can tell you that this late-life masterpiece will see a lot of publicity because, without spoiling anything, Andrew’s recitation suddenly places him into a political conflict of the most insidious nature, and while this story shift pulls you up short, it takes the novel to a higher plane.
I must confess, I wanted more of the book, it was too brief for me, and the ending not satisfying in that way that novels wrap up and make sense, but of course, Doctorow leaves us to think for ourselves. What is the trajectory of our lives? How do we find ourselves in prisons of our own making? And what, or who, can alter that destiny? Read for yourself and decide.