Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

The Holy Fool's Revelation: Metafiction, Trauma, and Posthumanity in E. L. Doctorow's Andrew's Brain

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

The Holy Fool's Revelation: Metafiction, Trauma, and Posthumanity in E. L. Doctorow's Andrew's Brain

Article excerpt


Andrew's Brain (2014), Doctorow's last novel, is a very complex work, dense with cultural references and metafictional hints about itself and the inescapable mediating role discourse plays in our understanding of reality. Unfortunately, criticism on Doctorow's fiction has decreased dramatically in later years, and only a few reviews attest to his last novel's quality together with its being shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. In her review for The Guardian, writer Jane Smiley confidently described Andrew--the protagonist and narrator of the story--as "a neuroscientist and teacher, but his life has fallen apart; Doctorow's novel purports to be a transcription of his interactions with his psychotherapist" (1). Other reviewers do not see the role of Andrew in such clear terms, however, but underline the mysterious condition of the personage and the disconcerting quality of his memories. Thus, Boyagoda describes Andrew as somebody who veers between the first and third person

in telling tales about his clumsy self and his cracked-up
relationships. He speaks to us from an undisclosed location, where he
is in conversation with an unidentified interlocutor who could be a
psychiatrist, a grief counsellor, a police officer or a CIA agent.
That each of these is a possibility attests to the mysterious
circumstances that envelop the whole story. (49; see also Malcolm 55,
Gold 36)

In response to the mystery surrounding Andrew's role, with the help of narrative analysis and critical notions referred to as trauma theory and posthumanity, I contend that Andrew's Brain invites an allegoric reading of the human condition at the turn of the millennium. This reading calls for a reconsideration of the narrator's status as a computing machine in the process of developing a full consciousness and of the reader as expected decoder of the complexity and mystery inherent to the story; both notions inform an authorial reconsideration of the role humankind plays at present and could play in the near future. My hypothesis emerges from the unreliable quality of Andrew's report but also from the stereotypical traumatic quality of his memories and from his obsession with three binaries whose ideological limits have become rather diffused in later years: mind/brain, nature/civilization, and original/copy. The three binaries become progressively important for Andrew in his sustained attempt to understand his own identity and, by extrapolation, the condition of present society. Thus, Andrew's Brain looks back allegorically to expose America's collective traumas and for ward to acknowledge the importance of the radical posthuman shift already affecting our present condition. Meanwhile, the whole novel has been built on a number of metafictional strategies that point to the necessity to unveil the mysteries surrounding the protagonist's nature and to situate the reader as decoder of the puzzle parallel to the narrator's quest for existential clarification.

Doctorow strongly relied on his knowledge of psychoanalytic and trauma criticism to carry out his final project and create the figure of a traumatized narrator and protagonist who obsessively needs to escape from binary thinking. In addition, the novel also relies on contemporary theories on cognitivism and transhumanity that help the writer to reopen a debate initiated in City of God (2000) between contemporary science and spirituality (see Collado-Rodriguez 60-69), which now addresses Doctorow's concerns about the role humanity may play in the near future.

One of the first metafictional hints Doctorow offers to decode his complex narrative is the protagonist's name. Andrew comes from [alpha][upsilon][delta][rho]o[?] (andros), genitive of the classic Greek term for "Man," which adds to the fact that the "personal" memories of many events and situations he supposedly experienced bring continuous stereotypical echoes from the collective history of the United States, including the classic go-west journey, which takes Andrew from the East Coast to California and back. …

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