Section: Arts

What’s up ‘Doc’?: alum pens new psychological novel

What’s up ‘Doc’?: alum pens new psychological novel

by Julia Waldrow

E.L. Doctorow ’52, an award-winning author, was inspired to write his new novel, Andrew’s Brain, when he had a vision of sorts.

“[The book] began not as an idea but as an image in my mind: A man holding a swaddled infant in his arms stands in front of a house waiting for the door to open. It is winter. Snow is falling,” Doctorow wrote in an email to the Collegian.

Named an Amazon Best Book of the Month, Andrew’s Brain is structured as a conversation regarding life, work and time between the man, Andrew and an unidentified interlocutor called “Doc.” As the novel unfolds, the reader, “Doc” and Andrew struggle to put together the pieces of Andrew’s complicated history about his failed marriage, teaching career and love affair, thereby questioning ideas about the truth, memory, the brain and the mind in the process.

Andrew’s Brain is not a linear narrative,” Doctorow wrote. “Time in the book goes both ways, [and] settings appear and disappear. What is factual is indistinguishable from what is imagined.”

The novel’s nontraditional structure, as well as Andrew’s jumbled memories, prompts the reader to question the relationships between the mind and the brain as well as reality and illusion.

“The nature of consciousness is mysterious,” Doctorow wrote. “If it is created by what [poet Walt] Whitman calls ‘the body electric,’ then the Cartesian idea of the soul is fanciful. But how then does the material brain produce our thoughts, feelings, desires, longings, joys, fears, et cetera? As [of] yet, nobody has figured that out.”

According to Assistant Professor of Psychology Andrew Engell, the ways in which humans process and retrieve information is subjective, making it difficult to truly discern what is real.

“A lot of people feel that their memories are recordings of the past, the same way that a cassette records sound,” Engell said. “Memories are not the same thing as a perfectly veridical recording of the past … We have these little bits of information that we construct into the whole, but memories are susceptible to interference and falsehood. Of course, recollection is a huge part of being human, so I think it’s important for people to understand the limits of their memories and what they entail.”

As a student at Kenyon, Doctorow cited his studies in poetry, theatre and philosophy as contributing to his “sense of [self] as a writer.”

“The study of modern poetry with John Crowe Ransom, Aesthetics and Metaphysics with Philip Blair Rice, Logic and Epistemology with Virgil Aldrich … [and] drama with James E. Michael … were instrumental [to my writing],” Doctorow wrote. “They’re all long since gone, of course, but they were great teachers.”

A philosophy major, Doctorow urges writers at Kenyon to dedicate themselves to their craft and to read others’ works to expand their literary worlds.

“Fiction and poetry do not provide careers. They are callings. If you feel the call, you had better read,” Doctorow wrote. “You must read the poets and the novelists. You must read everything you can get your hands on.”

 

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