Amazon reviewers rave over E.L. Doctorow, so I sincerely hope that Andrew’s Brain is not representative of this man’s body of work. If asked to use one word to describe this novel, that word would be “pointless.” I have no idea what I was supposed to take away from this novel, other than a hesitancy to ever read anything else by Doctorow.
Andrew’s Brain is the story of a man who is being detained, but we don’t know where or by whom. We wonder if Andrew himself knows this information. It seems that he is being interrogated by a therapist of sorts, and Andrew confides in this man the details of his depressing life. Mind you, these details are in no particular order. His life has been full of tragedy, but he has been the catalyst for most of these tragic events. Then again, Andrew seems to have suffered some sort of break with reality, so his narration is likely less than reliable.
Doctorow’s writing style here is very stream-of-consciousness, but this does not come across as stylized or impressive, as I assume the author had intended. Instead, this novel is incredibly meandering and acutely boring. I actually fell asleep. I listened to Andrew’s Brain on Audible, and I actually lost consciousness and woke up, from the best I can tell, over an hour later. Since the plot is non-linear and Andrew often refers to himself in the third person, by the time I woke up, I honestly wasn’t even sure that I had fallen asleep. It was impossible to tell. Against my better judgment, I went back over two hours to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, but I can never really be sure since this novel is so difficult to follow in the first place. I will never get back all of those hours that I spent attempting to decipher this book.
Andrew as a character is the biggest drawback, and as he is the main character, that’s quite a problem. He recalls events from his life in no particular order and with inconsistent emotion. He is devastated by the loss of his second wife (who he may or may not be legally married to), yet he seems only vaguely bothered that he was responsible for the death of his first child. Really, he feels no attachment for any of the children that he fathered, which may be as many as three. He claims that his in-laws are dwarves and that his college roommate is now the president of the United States.
Readers are left to piece together these random elements into a coherent plotline. Not only is this task insurmountable, but it is fruitless as well. Moreover, I didn’t care enough about Andrew as a character to care about what was wrong with him – I just wanted him to quit talking. Even though the book itself is barely over 200 pages, it takes a long, long time for Andrew to quit talking. Whatever Doctorow was trying to do here, he should never try to do it again.