Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Writing on the Brain

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Writing on the Brain

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "The Rise of the Neuronovel" by Marco Roth, in n+1, Fall 2009.

THE OBSESSION WITH DESCRIBING human personalities in the cold language of neuroscience has reached beyond the pages of the popular press and such influential books as Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained (1991). It's now the stuff of fiction, writes Marco Roth, a founding editor of n+1. Behold, the neuronovel.

This literary breed was memorably inaugurated by Ian McEwan's 1997 novel Enduring Love, in which a science journalist is stalked by a man with de Clerambault's syndrome, a condition in which the sufferer believes that another person is secretly in love with him. Other examples include Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (1999), in which the protagonist has Tourette's syndrome; Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), narrated by an autistic teenager; and Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances (2008), about a man who suffers from Capgras syndrome and stops recognizing his wife.

By the early 1990s, Roth writes, psychoanalysis was regarded as "bankrupt"--and Prozac was in. A "new reductionism ... explained proximate causes of mental function in terms of neurochemistry, and ultimate causes in terms of evolution and heredity." A comprehensive explanation of consciousness has yet to emerge, but even so, novelists, whose stock in trade has been the same as Freud's--"introspection of the self and observation of others"--are struggling for traction.

Neuronovelists are engaged in a perilous exercise, Roth suggests. …

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