NEW YORK — The writer, tall and owlish, a sly grin on his face, ambles in soft-soled shoes down the hall of his roomy Upper East Side apartment. His office is a tad disorderly, he says by way of apology, but also, it might seem, as a means of foreshadowing.
It’s tempting to imagine E.L. Doctorow, our master channeler of bygone Americas, hunched over a manual typewriter here. Clackety-clack. Sepia tones. Joplin on the Victrola.
But Doctorow, who turned 83 this month, rejects the label of “historical novelist” so often ascribed to him, saying the word used to describe his avocation needs no modification. When he sits in this narrow space filled with books and piles of periodicals he’s meaning to read, his fingers meander across the keyboard of a laptop computer, rather than a Smith-Corona. He props his IBM ThinkPad in an awkward posture, wobbling atop a thick book about Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian.
“The important thing is to not to be too comfortable when you’re writing,” Doctorow explains. “Noise in the street? That’s good. The computer goes down? That’s good. All these things are good. It has to be a little bit of a struggle.”
Doctorow challenges readers of his new novel, “Andrew’s Brain,” an enigmatic wonder that went on sale Tuesday, to struggle a bit, too. “I do think this book, more than most, is one that judges its readers,” Doctorow says. “If someone is looking for ordinary formulaic fiction, this is not it.”
In “Andrew’s Brain,” Doctorow abandons the mostly linear storytelling form that distinguished his earlier and much-celebrated literary novels, such as the precisely woven and digestible bestsellers “The March” and “The Book of Daniel.” “My sense of what a book should be has changed so radically — I like to think for the better,” he says.
Doctorow has been amused as advance readers try to unravel the meanings of his latest work. The novel, which somersaults through time and perspective, is mainly built upon an extended conversation between a misfortune-plagued cognitive scientist named Andrew and a frequently befuddled questioner he sometimes calls “Doc.”
One reader guessed that Doc is a ventriloquist and Andrew a dummy, Doctorow says, his right eye arching as he sits at the head of the table in a dining room with antiquey pastoral-scene wallpaper.
He stops and laughs.
“Someone else said that Andrew is a computer,” he recounts. An editor friend read it, then immediately started rereading it to try to understand it. In a conversation with another friend, Doctorow suggested that the book might be thought of “as an installation.”
“And we were both puzzled by what I just said. Why did I say that?” Eventually he settled on the idea of the book existing “in the nature of an installation that you walk into: you get hit by everything at once.”
He likes playing with iterations and reiterations. Andrew first spots his future wife while she is doing a handstand at the small college where he’s teaching. In the book’s climactic scene — spoiler alert — Andrew suddenly does a handstand in the Oval Office, alarming the Secret Service.
“All of these things sort of light up each other,” he says.
In the next room, Doctorow’s wife, Helen, has laid out cheese-filled pastries and placed two pots of coffee — regular and decaf — on a well-worn warming tray set on an enormous kitchen island. “A caterer once told me it was the biggest kitchen she’d ever seen, ‘Except Yoko Ono’s, of course,’” Helen says. “I loved that: ‘Of course!’”
The couple moved into the fashionable prewar building in 2000, consolidating two households — their home in New Rochelle and their apartment in Greenwich Village — into one. Books were piled everywhere and “triage” was required to thin them. “It looked like the Collyer brothers,” says Helen, referring to the famous hoarders who were the inspiration for Doctorow’s 2009 novel, “Homer & Langley.”
In his youth, Doctorow studied drama at Kenyon College in Ohio. He only started getting good parts, he says, when one of his older classmates graduated: that would be Paul Newman.
When Doctorow began writing, he decided to use his initials — his full name is Edgar Lawrence Doctorow — because writers he admired had done so, men such as D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster. But friends call him Edgar.
Doctorow worked as an editor in the 1960s, poring over the manuscripts of authors such as Ayn Rand, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer and William Kennedy. Later, his tendency to self-edit sometimes led to last-minute dramas. His 1980 novel “Loon Lake” was already in production when he told the publisher to stop everything after deciding he had “done something tremendously wrong.”
“The tone of it was wrong for the young man who was narrating it. He needed more of an edge,” he says. “You want it to be perfect.”
Still, he considers the quest for perfection perilous. He launches into a remembrance of “The Birth-Mark,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne about a scientist who marries a beautiful woman but becomes obsessed with a red birthmark on her face. The scientist devises a potion to rid her of the blemish, but when it fades, she dies.
As such, Doctorow says he has occasionally left errors in his books. In one early novel, a character removes the blades of a windmill as winter approaches. A reader told him that blades are tied down before storms, rather than removed. He decided not to fix the mistake in future printings. In a sense, it was his book’s birthmark.
Breaking the mold
Doctorow seldom reads his previous work, though they fill shelves in libraries and bookstores around the world. “There’s an alienation that occurs with your present writing-self and your past writing-self. I could not duplicate right now my first novel. … Not that I’d want to.”
His books became bestsellers and accumulated piles of awards — a National Book Critics Circle prize for “Ragtime,” a National Book Award for “World’s Fair,” a PEN/Faulkner for “Billy Bathgate.” But by the late 1990s, Doctorow was gripped by a “desire to sort of break through and break the mold,” a feeling that took firmer hold while he was writing his 2000 novel, “City of God.”
The ideas for his books invariably stem from images that he can’t erase from his mind. The sight of a group of men in tuxedos inspired “Billy Bathgate,” his novel about a teenage boy who becomes the protege of the gangster Dutch Schultz.
“Andrew’s Brain” was triggered by dual memories: an image of a little girl coloring and an emotional conversation Doctorow had with a friend who confided that he had inadvertently killed his child. Over drinks one night, the man told Doctorow about the child dying in his arms after he administered an incorrect medicine with an eye dropper. The travails of his friend — a decent man connected to a string of tragedies — informed Doctorow’s portrait of his character, Andrew.
“It is dangerous to stare into yourself,” Andrew says. “You pass through endless mirrors of self-estrangement. This too is the brain’s cunning, that you are not to know yourself.”
Andrew wrestles with the nature of his own consciousness. “It’s a kind of jail, the brain’s mind,” he says. The brain, he postulates, can pretend to be the soul.
Doctorow suggests that Andrew’s brain “does things before he can stop it from doing them.” But he’s hesitant to impose an interpretation, hoping that readers will arrive at their own conclusions. “The nature of good fiction is that it dwells in ambiguity,” he says.
Politics and fiction
President Barack Obama has sometimes referred to Doctorow as his favorite writer. In December, the president bought a copy of “Ragtime” at Politics & Prose in Northwest Washington. Doctorow hadn’t known before the 2008 election that Obama read him, but says, “I would have voted for him anyway.”
Doctorow reserves scorn for Obama’s predecessor. In 2004, Doctorow lambasted George W. Bush over the Iraq War in a column for the East Hampton Star that went viral. “I fault this president for not knowing what death is. … He hasn’t the mind for it,” Doctorow wrote.
And here another spoiler alert: A president who is not named, but is clearly Bush, plays a central role in the latter stages of Doctorow’s new book. “Chaingang” and “Rumbum” are characters clearly meant to resemble former vice president Dick Cheney and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. They are “insulated” men, Andrew observes, “imperial in their selfhood, these corporate culturists running a government.”
With the passage of time, Doctorow predicts, readers will be less concerned with identifying the characters and will be left with something deeper. “What they will see is a statement of moral insufficiency as it’s attached to power,” he says.
The signal event of Bush’s presidency — the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — appears in vivid and emotionally wrenching detail in “Andrew’s Brain,” one of the more affecting fictional portrayals of that awful day yet produced.
Doctorow was at his weekend home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., on that morning as planes smashed into the World Trade Center. He set out for the city by car; his wife was at the apartment on the Upper East Side.
But he turned back when the radio squawked that police were closing major roads. He sat in Sag Harbor, studying maps, a native New Yorker bent on finding a secret route in. He set out again, certain that he’d figured out a way. But then the radio told him a few roads were opening.
He was almost disappointed. He’d wanted it to be a struggle.