Judging from the reviews I skimmed through even before I read (okay, listened to) Andrew’s Brain, I expected to be disappointed. In that case, why did I read it? I really like E.L. Doctorow. I’d only read two of his novels, World’s Fair, which I loved, and Loon Lake, which was also pretty good. Ragtime is his best known, and it’s been on my to-read list for years, now.
So here’s what happened: Palmer has spent the last two weeks working in Dallas, and I drove over to spend the weekend with him. I wanted a short audiobook as I don’t drive much, and I wouldn’t listen to it on my five-minute trips to and from work. Andrew’s Brain, clocking in at under four hours and immediately available on Overdrive, was perfect.
Andrew’s Brain is about an aging, depressed scientist either in therapy or being interviewed in some undisclosed location which is possibly government-related. Doctorow isn’t clear about much, and the novel feels like a bit of a labyrinth: we get bits and pieces in various places, and we have to put together the pictures for ourselves. Which would be fine if it was more interesting. Here’s the general story (I’ll add a spoiler alert here in case you want to play along with Doctorow): Andrew gets married to a woman named Martha and has a daughter who he accidentally kills. They get a divorce, and he starts teaching cognitive science at a small university, where he falls in love with a student. The feelings are mutual, and he and the student begin a years-long relationship (but never marry) and have a child. Then this woman, the love of his life, dies, supposedly in 9/11. Most of this time we’re wondering how reliable a narrator Andrew is. My answer? Not very. Anyway, he’s heartbroken and drops their child off with Martha, who ends up adopting her with her Very Large Husband, as Doctorow calls him. After all this business, Andrew explains that he got a new job as a substitute science teacher, and after a visit from the president (who appears to be Dubya), he becomes the Cognitive Science Advisor (a position that doesn’t really exist) because the president had been his roommate in college and doesn’t want all of his mildly embarrassing secrets to be exposed. Yeah, that’s about it.
If I hadn’t been a captive audience – in my car and bored – I probably wouldn’t have finished Andrew’s Brain. The last third, or so, involving the president, is just silly and out of place. It’s like Doctorow wrote a novella, and then his editor told him it needed to be longer, so he came up with the most far-fetched story he could. Like ninjas in Nanowrimo. Meh.
Ragtime must be better. Andrew’s Brain made me question whether I want to bother reading it, but World’s Fair was very good. (And I just realized that I listed Ragtime in my 2014 TBR Pile Challenge, which means I’ll at least give it a try.) Part of my dislike might also be related to my having listened to this novel rather than reading it. With one exception, Sissy Spacek reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I haven’t had good luck with audiobooks. Am I going to give the novel a second chance? Probably not, though I’m not ruling it out, especially if I like Ragtime. We’ll see how it goes.
The highlight of my trip to Dallas was a trip to the Fort Worth Zoo. Palmer and I had a great time…
…Which he so kindly chronicled in two very silly Youtube videos:
Good times were had by all.