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
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 trapped within the “dying animal,” as Yeats put it. Varieties of self-disgust and confusion ensue.
And yet there is more to Doctorow than the skull beneath the skin. He is a writer of intriguing contradictions. He has an incantatory way with words, and his novels read as if written in an ecstatic trance. In a 1986 interview in the Paris Review Doctorow describes how he is transfixed, hypnotised, by the power of language: “As the book goes on it becomes inevitable. Your choices narrow, the thing picks up speed. And there’s the exhilaration of a free ride—like a downhill ski run.” His novel City of God is a brilliant feat of daring, comprised of rival strains of narrative (including an ironic detective plot), discussions of the origins of the universe, meditations on transience and forays into poetry. In Ragtime Doctorow develops a meandering reprise, suggestive of oral history. In The March, he is omniscient and exploratory, circles far above his characters and then hones in suddenly on sketchy inner thoughts: “His thoughts ran this way: What if the dead man dreams as the sleeper dreams? How do we know there is not a posthumous mind? Or that death is not a dream state from which the dead can’t awaken?”
Doctorow riffs, stalls, shifts modes. He is willing to stop a rolling plot and insert a theory of deep time. His style suggests that he regards the novel as a fundamentally philosophical enterprise, or as a Jungian outing for the collective unconscious. His aesthetic approach—alchemical, mystical—contradicts his brutally materialist scrutiny of the human form. His novels are riotous and exciting and then scabrous and vaguely revolting. He is gripped by some sort of incantatory sublime, then he tears his narrative apart, debauches his characters, has to work hard to recover them again. Then he gets seized, propelled by something else.
Andrew’s Brain, Doctorow’s latest novel, is written in this spirit of “exhilaration.” It takes the form of a conversation between Andrew and an unnamed interlocutor who seems to be his psychiatrist. Andrew streams out memories and impressions, some banal, some pensive, some blatantly outlandish. He is interrupted sporadically by questions or observations from the other person—“This was where?” “Who are we speaking of now?” “I hear self-loathing,” “Hmmm.”
At the beginning, Andrew is a cognitive scientist, confident in his assumptions, affixing human emotions to discrete areas of the human brain. He believes that schizophrenia will soon be cured, because biologists “are going to get to that with their gene sequencing, finding the variations on the genome—those protein suckers attached to the teleology. They’ll give them numbers and letters, snipping away a letter here, adding a number there, and… the disease will be no more.” He is ritually focused on the shabby flesh—“how we decay in our rotting coffins… little microgenetic fragments of us sucked into the gut of a blind worm.” Like Daniel in The Book of Daniel, Andrew moves between first and third person perspectives. He is within the experience, and then he is remembering it, he is outside, watching himself, staring up at lighted windows he once called home.
This is a concise book which depends heavily on a few disorienting twists in the plot. Essentially Andrew’s life falls apart, and his theories are demolished. Doctorow draws in real historical events, including 9/11, but such allusions are inflected with Andrew’s idiosyncracies and even fantasies. Though Andrew begins as a leading expert on consciousness and its reducibility to biology, he becomes a monumentally unreliable narrator, his story defined by repetitions and occult coincidences. He endures two marriages, the death of one child, which he believes is his fault, then the death of his second wife and the loss of his second child. He is propelled through a further series of weird subplots that may be little more than his own fabrications. He is tormented and traduced and becomes less like a modern man of science than a wild-eyed Job, flailing from one hallucinatory trauma to another. His rational worldview becomes impossible to sustain. It is as if Doctorow is making a point about hubris—Andrew’s, his, and ours—and about the belief of finite mortals that they can fathom the mysteries of the universe, and the self.
By the end, Andrew has lost everything, and has been confined somewhere which is “not home.” “I’m being held without trial and it’s already been indefinitely,” he says. “That’s celestial time, you know. I’m sentenced to roll round with the planet, to count the suns, the moons, the seasons… My mind is shot through with visions, dreams, and the actions and words of people I don’t know. I hear soundless voices, phantoms loom up out of my sleep and onto the wall, lingering there, cringing in anguish, curling up in visible contortions of pain and crying out wordlessly for my help…”
The relationship between Andrew and his psychiatrist has been inverted and now Andrew is forced to ask the questions:
“Tell me, Doc, am I a computer?”
“Am I the first computer invested with consciousness? With terrible dreams, with feelings, with grief, with longing?”
“No, Andrew, you’re a human being.”
“Well, you would say that.”
This is poignant and farcical at the same time, making the novel into a shaggy dog story that culminates in a sick joke. What happens to a cognitive scientist when he goes mad? He takes his own metaphors literally, suggests Doctorow. The metaphor of the brain as a computer becomes, to Andrew, an absolute—he is nothing but a brain, nothing but a computer, he is dehumanised. He is assailed by mythical traditions that he previously sought to discard. “I see you’ve let your beard grow, your hair,” says the psychiatrist, rather cruelly. “You could indeed be the Holy Fool.” Or is he only a contemporary schizophrenic, who can be cured by medical science? Why, then, is he left so perplexed and raving and alone?
Many of Doctorow’s characters, from Houdini in Ragtime to Daniel to Andrew, occupy this hinterland between madness and ordinary life, foolishness and wisdom. And this book, as with all Doctorow’s work, is a kind of holy madness that holds you until the end. It also made this reader wonder what a publisher would do if an unknown author sent in such a fiery non-commercial book, so full of dissonances? Would they throw it away or take a chance and publish it? I hope the latter, I fear the former. I suspect that Doctorow, were it not for his reputation, would have a pretty gruesome time getting this sort of demanding fiction published in these nervous times. He is a febrile and unbridled writer, still ploughing his furrow in his own distinctive way. In this book, the experiment half fails—we are too bemused by Andrew, too alienated by his unreliable narration—but I’d still rather have the experiment than something more measured, and more dull, any day.