EL Doctorow’s fiction can be brutal in its depiction of bodily suffering. Yet he is just as interested in the strange workings of the human mindby Joanna Kavenna / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
Andrew’s Brain by EL Doctorow (Little, Brown, £12.99)
EL Doctorow, whose career has spanned more than half a century, is often cited as one of the great postwar American novelists, named in ponderous critical lists along with Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, John Updike et al. These other writers, however, forged their reputations by scrutinising contemporary realities and toying with authorial personae or pseudo autobiography. Doctorow is more concerned with history and the fragile truths that lie within contested historical events. Many of his novels are set in the past. The March takes place in the 1860s, The Book of Daniel in the 1940s and 1950s and Ragtime in the early 20th century. He deploys a vast array of styles and voices, lurches into verse, intercuts philosophical digressions with reportage. His chopped up technique owes something to works such as “The USA Trilogy” by John Dos Passos.
Like Roth and Updike and swathes of other 20th century writers, Doctorow is, at times, a sadistic materialist, taunting his readers with contemptuous descriptions of the mortal body. Doctorow’s breakthrough novel, The Book of Daniel, is written in a vibrant, dynamic style, yet every so often it nosedives into “we’re mortal/we’re gross” laments and diatribes. The novel is based loosely on the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, an American couple executed in 1953 for allegedly giving nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. At the moment when Doctorow’s fictionalised Rosenbergs are executed, the narrator, Daniel—their equally fictionalised son—turns to the reader: “I suppose you think I can’t do the electrocution. I know there is a you. There has always been a you. YOU: I will show you that I can do the electrocution.”
He continues: “My father smashed into his straps as if hit by a train. He snapped back and forth, cracking like a whip. The leather straps groaned and creaked. Smoke rose from my father’s head. A hideous smell compounded of burning flesh, excrement and urine filled the death chamber… A pool of urine collected on the cement floor under the chair.”
From this depiction of physical horror, we must infer the despair of the son. Viscera stands in for, and indicates, emotion. Such descriptions suggest a universe in which Cartesian mind-body dualism remains but the consolations of God and religion are absent. Here the mind that ostensibly constitutes the self is no longer oriented towards a redemptive invisible realm but merely…