Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The weird logic of calamity

Full title: Andrew's Brain
Author: E. L. Doctorow
Genre: Fiction, novel
Attributes: 224 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Random House (2014)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Many things happen in Andrew’s Brain, as well as in Andrew’s brain. Many ideas, many events, many questions and answers: an entire philosophical menagerie making a lot of noise and causing a lot of mental stir. Andrew, a neuroscientist who has lost two wives (one through divorce, the other one through death), is, apparently, undertaking psychotherapy. The novel, cleverly constructed in the form of a dialogue, has Andrew, the speaking voice, addressing and being addressed by an unnamed collocutor whom he often calls, simply, anonymously, “Doc.”

The two of them talk and talk – mostly about how Andrew’s existence has been characterized by an endless series of accidents. We learn that he’s prone to making stupid mistakes, to causing accidents of various magnitudes, and, in general, to bringing outrageous bad luck to the people he comes in contact with. Because this is also an American novel dealing with American issues, the events described reach national dimensions. 9/11 comes as no surprise: perhaps Andrew’s most prominent involvement in this weird logic of interlocked accidents. The same goes for his association with the White House, after discovering, by accident (how else?) that he was class mates with the current President.
But what really matters is the argument built around the relationship between Being and accident. The two terms are rather easy to discover. At some point, Andrew uses them to refer to his two wives:
“Martha was being, Briony was becoming.”

This sets the narrative on a serious philosophical path. Being and Becoming are not only terms to characterize Andrew’s wives; they show how the world at large spins.
Throughout the novel, there are numerous references to the fixed, domineering status of nature; as when Andrew describes the Wasatch Range, when he moves to work as a neuroscientist in a department where he is the only academic specialist.
“Wasatches ruled that town. After a day or two the truth dawned on me. You got up in the morning, they were there. You pulled into a gas station, and they were there. They were there in their stolid immensity, and that was that. You were colonized. They negotiated the light, they had to pass on it before it got to you.”

Mount Olympus in the Wasatch Ranges
Source: Wikipedia
It is behind this larger-than-life nature that the tragedies in Andrew’s life take place; and by extension, the tragedy of the entire human race. With the permanence of the mountains in sight, it becomes more likely to read the protagonist’s profession as a reference to humankind in general. Talking about brains is talking about human minds; talking about their evolution and their limitations:

“How can I think about my brain when it’s my brain doing the thinking?”

This is not Andrew tight-roping between his personal misfortunes. If the shot is widened enough, one can guess behind this individual brain a description of the very species that we are; above anything else, a description of the narrative aptitude that makes one specimen capable of telling a story such as the one about Andrew’s brain.