Premise: Andrew is a brilliant cognitive scientist discussing the important events of his life with his therapist. As he talks about losing a child and a wife, Andrew wonders if he might be an agent of death.
In the back and forth narrative of Andrew’s Brain, we get an insight into what makes Andrew tick and the neuroses that inform his decisions. In order to cope with his losses, he floats from job to job, teaching high school and university classes, and working for the president of the United States who also used to be his roommate in college.
Themes: Loss and death is at the forefront of Andrew’s Brain. Andrew’s child dies from his first marriage, causing their separation. Andrew’s new young wife dies as a result of the 9/11 terror attacks. When he doesn’t know what to do with his new child, he takes the baby to his first wife, thereby losing everything in his life that he loves.
Andrew’s Brain also peers into human existence and consciousness as Andrew attempts to teach his students about how the human brain interprets information, and ultimately how human sentience works. In turn, the reader receives brief lessons in cognitive science.
Pros: Andrew’s Brain shows how people can react to loss in their grief in different ways. As Andrew loses children and wives through death and separation, he shares his feelings to his therapist. It’s probably the biggest redeeming quality of this book.
Cons: There is a lack of character development in Andrew’s Brain, including Andrew the protagonist. As Andrew talks about his life he looks upon most everyone else as beneath him, excusing his own behavior when he acts in much the same way. Andrew comes across as neurotic, and in contrast to the attempts to paint him as a genius he instead sounds mentally ill. Without naming him, this book also clearly speaks against a certain president during the 9/11 terror attacks, but it felt more like filler politicizing.
Recommendations: Andrew’s Brain comes across as self-righteous as it talks down to the reader in its self-indulgent philosophizing. With a few humorous moments and a serious look at loss and grief, this short book lacks compelling characters or a true conclusion. I haven’t read any other of Doctorow’s work, but unless you’re into existential intellectualizing through life, I doubt this would be the one to begin with as it doesn’t really go anywhere.