A few pages into this new Doctorow novel, I was reminded of one of his regular narrative strategies--that is, he often begins his novels by creating confusion in the reader's mind. The narrator's voice shifts, the chronology is confusing or just random, the location of the action (or discussion) is unclear, and so on. The characteristics of narrative that give the reader a sense of where and who and what and why are scrambled. It takes a while for the attentive reader to sort them out. This happens at the beginning of Andrew's Brain, but it's not a longterm problem with the novel. As it happens, the reader soon learns that the voice of Andrew is speaking to (or in some cases writing to) his analyst, an unnamed presence who responds with questions (often left unanswered) and occasional comments about Andrew's state of mind, motives, good or bad choices. Andrew tells the analyst about the failure of his first marriage and his panicky effort to have his first (now former) wife take over the care of his infant daughter by his second wife, who is deceased. We learn all this if we read attentively through the first sections of the novel. I would add that there are no spoilers here.
With reference to spoilers, I have to say that I hesitate to tell much of anything more about the events Andrew narrates to his analyst, other than that he tells the story of how he meets and marries his second wife. Beyond that, it would be unfair to reveal the sequence of events that form the main body of the narrative of this uneven but finally very powerful novel. (I started early thinking it might be a 2 star, as I was exasperated by the triviality of much of Andrew's narrative and the too-clever devices Doctorow was using to mix the chronology and the characters to sustain uncertainty and suspense. But once the latter half of the narrative was under weigh, I was ready for a 3 star and even considered 5 star at some point near the end, but 4 seems reasonable.)
Andrew, by the way, is a "cognitive scientist," and he is talking with a psychoanalyst. Early in their discussions, he comments:
"Your field is the mind, mine is the brain. Will the two ever meet?" This question underlies much of the speculation that Andrew attempts in his professional research and in his teaching, about which we learn a bit as the novel continues. Andrew is interested in the ways the brain works, how its constitution and structure affect the thought and actions of human beings and other animals, and so forth. Further, Andrew is convinced that he is, in some way, a person who causes disasters--from the trivial, such as breaking a piece of chalk as he is trying to write his name on the chalkboard, to the fatal, as in his conviction that he was in some ways personally and causally responsible for several deaths, as well as some serious accidents. This conviction is based on his observations of his coincidental presence at, or involvement with, the fatal events. But this novel is in no sense a mystery thriller, as I have seen it incorrectly described. It is a drama of perception, precise and distorted, clarified or confused. Andrew is, as we learn early, driven to distraction, possibly to what we would call madness, by the cognitive dissonance that occurs when he realizes his well-intentioned or entirely innocent, or just casual actions result in calamity, usually for others.
Doctorow unleashes some of the most dramatic and traumatizing writing of his career in this novel (yes, I have read all his other novels and some short stories), and that is what must be reserved for the reader to find out. Having said that, why not 5 stars? It would be nice to be able to rank the novel at that level, but the deficiencies of the first third, nearly first half, of the novel are real, and very disappointing. But it is a very good example of a novel that should NOT be treated according to the "rule" that many people cite, that if a novel does not "catch" one in the first paragraph (sometimes the first few pages), then it is not worth continuing. This one may be more annoying than engaging in the first few chapters, but persevere. It's not a long novel, and the rewards kick in soon enough to carry you breathlessly to the end.