Acclaimed author E.L. Doctorow suggests a variety of ways to think about the form and movement of his short, swift, emotionally absorbing, intellectually troubling and often disconcertingly funny 12th novel, Andrew’s Brain.

“Think of it as an Installation,” he writes in answer to an emailed question. “This book has a special coded way of working. It comes back on itself with its circulation of images or leitmotifs. Everything in Andrew’s Brain gives light to everything else.”

This is true and helpful, to a point. The “Andrew” of the novel’s title is a cognitive scientist disclosing his life story from an undisclosed location to someone—psychiatrist? prison interrogator? Our guesses about the identity of Andrew’s interlocutor evolve as the novel proceeds. Andrew’s story is at least in part about the depth of suffering he experiences following traumatic losses he blames on his own haplessness. Doctorow says the novel grew from his “recollection of a man I knew years ago who accidentally killed his own child.”

But in telling his story, the captivating but unreliable Andrew invents and evades. “This is a book that doesn’t make a distinction between what might be real and what might not be real,” Doctorow says. Moving forward, Andrew’s story loops repeatedly in widening gyres through his emotional and intellectual concerns: the wily inventiveness of the human mind; a wife lost, a daughter almost inadvertently given away; the significance of Mark Twain as, writes Doctorow, “the writer whom we like to think of as the carrier of our national soul”; and a sort of abashed fascination with sexual acrobatics, to name just a few of the motifs that recur throughout the novel.

So? Repeating images and themes. OK. But “an Installation”?

“I was afraid you were going to ask me about that,” Doctorow says, laughing, during a phone call that reaches him the morning after he has received the National Book Awards 2013 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In his acceptance speech, Doctorow facetiously congratulated the “shortlisted content providers” of this year’s National Book Awards winners and questioned the meaning of the rise of the worldwide “overbrain,” his term for the Internet.

A cognitive scientist tests the boundaries of consciousness in Doctorow’s thought-provoking new novel.

A similar question pulses through this novel. Andrew, the cognitive scientist, wonders what will happen when biological processes can account for consciousness, when our experience of the human mind can be replicated by a computer. Why does this question recur with such urgency in the novel?

Doctorow, who turns 83 years old in January, responds in an email: “The neuroscientists who accept the materiality of mind—that is, who regard the soul as a fiction—don’t know yet how the brain becomes the mind—how the three pound neuro-electric system in our skulls produces our subjective life, our feelings, our thoughts. There are people building computers to emulate the brain and who believe in theory that a computer can be achieved that has consciousness. I’m not talking Hollywood movies here. If that ever happens, as Andrew assures us, it’s the end of the mythic world we’ve lived in since the Bronze Age. The end of the Bible and all the stories we’ve told ourselves until now. How can that not interest me, or you, or anybody? The impact of that would be equivalent to the planetary disasters of global warming, overpopulation or another giant asteroid blowing us to smithereens.”

Later, in the follow-up call, Doctorow returns to the discussion of the narrative shape and movement of Andrew’s Brain. “Do you know the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass? It’s phase music in which the music doesn’t proceed in a linear organization but as chords or musical statements that slowly, gradually change. Very often music has been an inspiration to me. In the process of writing it’s a felt thing, sort of visceral. One of the ways I think of writing is staying on the nerve of a book. And if you go off the nerve everything gets flat and dead.”

Thus Andrew’s Brain includes beautiful, nerve-tingling, riffing passages of prose, about which Doctorow says, “I’ve always been aware of the rhythm of sentences and the possible music in them. Which might drive me to a certain unconscious extent. I’m not sure. I grew up in a very musical family. My mother was a wonderful pianist and my father [was also musical] and my older brother formed a swing band when he was 16. I wasn’t particularly good at learning to play the piano; in fact when I announced to the family that I didn’t want to take lessons anymore, nobody objected. But somewhere or another surrounded by all this music, which I loved, the idea of music and language elided, so the sound of words and the rhythm of sentences has always been important to me.”

It is also a musical reference that introduces the final, explosive sequence of the novel. Andrew’s ex-wife is remarried to an opera singer who at one point encounters Andrew while dressed for the role of Boris Godunov, a pretender czar about to be overthrown by another pretender. Andrew considers the deceptions of a thinking brain, the mind’s ability to pretend itself into any situation, Andrew’s own inventive mind included. Then he tells his interlocutor a story that is in the same instant sharply funny and deeply anguished about a pretender he has known, a former resident of the White House.

In other Doctorow novels, his characters exist within an American social and political context. The same seems to be true in Andrew’s Brain. In fact, the novel’s final chapters cast a backward light and rearrange what we think we know about Andrew and what he has experienced. Does this mean that Doctorow, like Andrew’s frequently invoked Mark Twain, has written a book about the national soul?

Doctorow laughs. “The trouble with a question like this is that if an astute reader has creative interpretive ideas, he looks to the author for the certification of these ideas. But I’m the last person in the world to certify your reading. Really what happens is when you finish writing a book, you rely on other people to tell you what you’ve done. So I have to duck that question and say if you see that, if you feel that, more power to you.”

Doctorow can affably duck the question, but he can’t avoid the fact that he’s written a remarkable, provocative novel that readers will want to return to again and again.

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