E.L. Doctorow is one of American’s greatest living writers. Over a long career, he has proven himself to be a keen observer of what it means to be American, and what it salient in the American experience. His experiments with the historical novel placed him front and center in post-modern experiments of novel-crafting the 70s. He wrote novels which wove historical and fictional characters into a whole. At the same time, he experimented with the novel's form, pace and characters, to give readers a fresh experience of the possibilities of the novel.
This brings us to Andrew’s Brain, a more recent Doctorow novel. It is not a period novel, but contemporary. It does not deal with the sweep of American history, but with a single character, and his all too unfortunate life. So, this novel is not a typical Doctorow production. Andrew has some of the odd and off kilter elements of Daniel in The Book of Daniel, but in a far more distant, sinister way. He is a strange and believable character, on the outer edge of compassionate likability.
All in all, Andrew as a neuroscientist adds little weight to the novel. It is an obvious device that allows Andrew to deliver soliloquies on the nature of the brain, the mind, consciousness, emotions and motivations. This is fine material for a novelist, but Doctorow does not have the requisite knowledge to really render Andrew as a believable scientist. So on this part Doctorow shows his hand. Also, the end arrives rather abruptly and with little satisfaction. It lacks the engagement of the rest of the novel, and seems just like a drop off point.
Despite these two large flaws, which would sink a novel written by a writer with less skill, Andrew’s Brain is still an engaging novel brimming with Doctorow’s insights about what it means to be human. While not his strongest work by a long shot, I can forgive the failings.