Ex­plor­ing con­scious­ness

The great co­nun­drum of the hu­man brain — and what about it makes us hu­man — is ex­plored through a fic­tional nar­ra­tive.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS MONTHLY - Andrew’s Brain e.L. doc­torow ran­dom House, 200 pages, fic­tion Re­view by DAVID L. ULIN

E.L. Doc­torow has long op­er­ated in the shadow of the tran­scen­den­tal­ists: Es­say­ist ralph waldo Emer­son, who in­spired Doc­torow’s 2003 collection of es­says, Reporting The Uni­verse; Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose story Wake­field, Doc­torow up­dated in 2008.

Like them, Doc­torow’s great sub­ject is con­scious­ness, what he has called “a mind in the ap­palled con­tem­pla­tion of it­self”. Like them, he is a ro­man­tic, a true be­liever – in the myth of Amer­ica as a shin­ing city, de­spite its var­i­ous and on­go­ing fail­ures to live up to its bet­ter self.

His finest ef­forts em­body this ten­sion, be­tween who we are and who we wish we were, be­tween prom­ise and de­spair.

“Fic­tion goes every­where,” Doc­torow sug­gests in his 2000 novel City Of God, “in­side, out­side, it stops, it goes, its ac­tion can be men­tal. ... Nov­els can do any­thing in the dark hor­rors of con­scious­ness.” In­her­ent in such a state­ment is the faith that lit­er­a­ture can (yes) tran­scend our va­garies, or at least cast our con­tra­dic­tions in stark re­lief.

Doc­torow’s 12th novel, Andrew’s Brain, op­er­ates out of pre­cisely this in­ten­tion. con­structed as a di­a­logue be­tween a cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist named Andrew and an un­named in­ter­locu­tor, it be­gins by fram­ing an ir­rec­on­cil­able dilemma: “If con­scious­ness ex­ists with­out the world, it is noth­ing, and if it needs the world to ex­ist, it is still noth­ing.”

Andrew is talk­ing from an undis- closed lo­ca­tion, so in­dis­tinct it may not be phys­i­cal: He could be a phan­tom of his neu­rol­ogy. “(t)he great prob­lem con­fronting neu­ro­science,” he ar­gues, “is how the brain be­comes the mind. How that three-pound knit­ting ball makes you feel like a hu­man be­ing.”

the im­pli­ca­tions are not only ma­te­rial but also spir­i­tual. If con­scious­ness is just a mat­ter of neu­rons flash­ing, then what is the essence of hu­man­ity? “to have feel­ings, states of mind, mem­ory, long­ing,” Doc­torow writes: that is what sets us apart.

But “if we fig­ure out how the brain gives us con­scious­ness, we will have learned how to repli­cate con­scious­ness” – which means “the end of the mythic hu­man world we’ve had since the Bronze Age. the end of our do­min­ion. the end of the Bi­ble, and all the sto­ries we’ve told our­selves un­til now.”

If all that sounds a bit ab­stract, it can be, al­though Andrew’s Brain is not ex­actly a novel of ideas. rather, it is a mem­ory book, a ret­ro­spec­tive, in which Andrew looks back over his life to fig­ure out how he came to be wher­ever he is. His is a hard-luck story, marked by a dead child and a dead wife, and a se­ries of re­treats and sur­ren­ders, be­gin­ning when he was a boy.

Bad things hap­pen to him (or more ac­cu­rately around him): the death of a mo­torist who veered into a tree so as not to hit him while he was sled­ding, an at­tack on his dachs­hund puppy by a red-tailed hawk in wash­ing­ton Square. “Son,” he re­calls his fa­ther say­ing, “lots of kids were sleigh rid­ing and it could have been any one of them in the path of that car. It just hap­pened to be you. He didn’t be­lieve this any more than I did. He knew that if any kid was likely to cause a fa­tal crash it would be me.”

these mem­o­ries raise an enig­matic ques­tion: do our ex­pe­ri­ences shape our per­son­al­i­ties or is it the other way around?

“Deep down,” Andrew ad­mits, “at the bot­tom of my soul, if such ex­ists, I am fi­nally un­moved by what I’ve done.” what he’s get­ting at is how our ac­tions and at­ti­tudes cre­ate rip­ples, re­ver­ber­a­tions, a but­ter­fly ef­fect. to what ex­tent is Andrew the agent of his dis­as­trous cir­cum­stances, and what does it mean that they don’t af­fect him much?

this is both a nar­ra­tive and a philo­soph­i­cal is­sue – al­though the para­dox is that the more Doc­torow tilts to­ward the for­mer, the more he un­der­mines the book. It’s a strange crit­i­cism, since fic­tion is an art of nar­ra­tive, but the plot he de­vel­ops in the fi­nal third of Andrew’s Brain is so un­likely as to seem serendip­i­tous, a rad­i­cal right turn that runs the novel off the road.

At the heart of the shift are the 9/11 ter­ror at­tacks in the US in 2001 and the ex­cesses of the Ge­orge w. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, which are meant to echo, in some sense, Andrew’s own in­dif­fer­ence and bad luck. to make the point ex­plicit, Doc­torow es­tab­lishes a per­sonal con­nec­tion be­tween the char­ac­ter and the pres­i­dent, as if to in­di­cate that they are cut from the same care­less cloth.

“You are only the worst so far,” Andrew tells the leader of the free world, “there is far worse to come. Per­haps not to­mor­row. Per­haps not next year, but you have shown us the path into the Dark wood.”

Even at its best, Andrew’s Brain is lesser Doc­torow; it lacks the heft of City Of God, which wres­tles with sim­i­lar con­sid­er­a­tions, or Rag­time, with its ex­quis­ite struc­tural unity. Still, when it works, it is be­cause of the ten­sion of not know­ing, the in­for­ma­tion we do not have.

con­scious­ness, Andrew un­der­stands, is a co­nun­drum; “Pre­tend­ing,” he tells us, “is the brain’s work.” what bet­ter sub­ject for a novel, which is, af­ter all, an ex­tended game of let’s pre­tend? – Los Angeles times/Mcclatchytri­bune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

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