This is a book about lying.
It’s always been Doctorow’s M.O. to pretend. He pretends to write about history, but there’s about as much history in his books as there is in Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
Twain is Andrew’s favorite writer.
With this novel Doctorow adds science to his list of lies and not just any science but the most difficult one – cognitive science, the study of how the brain works and all the sciences associated with its machinations and of consciousness itself.
Meet Andrew, a professor of cognitive science who doesn’t believe in his own area of study. “If consciousness exists without the world, it is nothing,” he says. “And if it needs the world to exist, it is still nothing.” Don’t waste your time studying it, he’s saying. Consciousness is impossible to understand. So the cog sci professor is living a lie.
This is not as shocking as it might seem. In order to teach at the college level, you must have a Ph.D. In order to get a Ph.D., you have to pick an original topic. Most of the interesting topics have been taken, so you end up writing about something that doesn’t interest you. That becomes your area of expertise and you embark on a career of boring students who are forced to take your course because the interesting ones are filled with upperclassmen.
He doesn’t hide his disdain when he meets his classes:
“How can I think about my brain when it’s doing the thinking? So is this brain pretending to be me thinking about it?”
Even if you were to enter a state of higher consciousness, Andrew says, you couldn’t trust what you were seeing because “Pretending is the brain’s work. It’s what it does. The brain can even pretend not to be itself.”
But he’s worried that other sciences might ignore how duplicitous consciousness is and figure out how to spread it around. He’s worried computer systems will crack the code about “how the brain gives us consciousness” and it will be able “to replicate consciousness.” He’s worried that genomics and bioengineering will give consciousness to animals and that would mark “the end of the mythic human world we’ve had since the Bronze Age. The end of our dominion.” He’s saying that when computers and cows can think, the stories we tell about ourselves will become ridiculous. Maybe Andrew is a robot because that’s the kind of ridiculous idea a conscious computer or a conscious cow might come up with.
It’s not only that he doesn’t believe in his area of study, but he’s doing everything he can to move all funding for such studies to the military.
This too is a lie because he’s making this argument to the unholy triangle (Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld) in the Oval Office and he’s being ironic. It’s not that he doesn’t want people to stop studying consciousness – he does. But I’m certain he’d rather have the money go to some other project. Since Andrew appears to be imprisoned, he is careful never to make clear what his real intentions are. The only way out is to play the holy fool.
Being in the Oval Office is his big chance. There’s no better time to play the holy fool than when you’re in the king’s court where everyone pretends to be on an important mission. Andrew stands on his head (his brain) in an attempt to be so outrageous that it might change things. But of course it doesn’t. Court jesters are only there so the king can puzzle his court. His job done, Andrew is sent to a Third World enclave where a therapist or CIA agent debriefs him. No one’s interested in what Andrew has to say. They just want to keep his brain busy so it doesn’t do any more damage.
And it’s had quite a history. (I’m ignoring the flashback since it implies the existence of memory, which is an important part of consciousness. But Andrew has convinced me that consciousness is nothing, so the flashback is immaterial.)
His wife dies during 9/11, leaving him with an infant child that he’s incapable of raising (it takes too much continuous thought and you know how he stands on that issue). So he knocks on the door of his first wife who is still getting over the fact that Andrew poisoned their child by mistake (a kind of accidental Munchhausen’s) and he gives the child to her and she takes it. Then he hits the skids and becomes a high school teacher. (Could there be anything be worse for a college professor?)
Luckily his old college roommate from Yale – the president – (Yale takes it on the chin once again) comes to visit his classroom to make sure “no child is left behind.” (I thought this scene happened during 9/11. But no matter.)
The president recognizes Andrew and takes him back to the White House where he makes him a cognitive science consultant just to confuse his staff. He spends most of his time confusing his staff.
Then Andrew makes his final report dissing consciousness and does the handstand in the Oval Office.
Doctorow likes to put together things that are not ordinarily associated with each another. He hopes some kind of magic results. But in a book this short and this anecdotal (the ramblings of a brain that doesn’t believe in itself) there isn’t time for the elements to mix. In scientific terms the changes in this novel are physical, not chemical.
The novel ends with Mark Twain (“MT”) making up stories to put his kids to sleep. And that’s what Doctorow is doing in this novel. He’s ridding us of consciousness with nonsensical tales designed to delight and amuse, but not to think. Thinking would keep us awake.
We are his children (the ones he didn’t poison or abandon). He wants us to feel “safe” and “snug” and “laugh with love for their father” who thinks that sleep is luckier than being conscious.
Andrew’s Brain is a nightmare.
Oh what tangled webs we weave when first we practice to perceive.
William L. Morris was a co-creator of the News Poetry Pages. He now lives and writes in Florida.
By E.L. Doctorow
200 pages, $26