Thursday, December 05, 2013

My heart has vibrated in time with E.L.Doctorow's literary syncopation since I first read "Ragtime."  I have remained in his thrall during the decades that have intervened.  Someone recently called him a "national treasure,"  and I would tend to agree with this assessment.  His latest offering, "Andrew's Brain," is a stunning achievement.  He packs a lot of action and exposition into 200 pages.

Andrew is being interviewed by an unknown interlocutor in an unknown place.  As the interview sessions progress, we learn  Andrew's story.  It is a tale of someone around whom tragedies happen.  Along the way as he recounts his personal journey, we learn of two wives, two children, many losses and a constant effort to understand the complexities of human consciousness.  For the real theme of this book, amid many sub-themes, is to question at what point the human brain becomes a self-aware mind.  Andrew is a professor of neuro-cognitive science.  He studies human awareness, although he himself often seems oblivious to the impact that he has on others.  This is part of Doctorow's delicious irony.

As Andrew's personal history unfolds, we are exposed to the opera Boris Godunov, the Pretender to the Throne.  That character re-emerges late in the novel in a surprising way that includes the White House of Bush 43.  The role of the Holy Fool takes on a surprising twist in the Oval Office.  The events of 9/11 play a significant part in the development of Andrew's story, as do the New York Marathon, the writings of Mark Twain, the Munchkins from the "Wizard of Oz," Greenwich Village and NYU.  Doctorow alludes to many American institutions as a way of pointing a spotlight at both their foibles and their possibilities.

There is a very Zen-like quality to Andrew's musings and his classroom teachings as he wrestles with the question of self-awareness.  The sentient reader will follow his lead, and use the amusement of this new literary gem to spark a round of deeper self-reflection.



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