The Art of the Negative Review – "Andrew's Brain"

Ron Charles at the Washington Post offers a nice example of the negative review that is both entertaining and enlightening.  He has some harsh things to say about Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow but he also explains clearly what he liked about the book and what fell short.

First, the negative:

“Andrew’s Brain” hurt mine. The problem isn’t that the novel requires a significant degree of intellectual effort; it’s that it doesn’t provide sufficient reward for that effort.


In the end, “Andrew’s Brain,” like Andrew himself, is merely a pretender — claiming more profundity than it can deliver, offering us something elliptical and vague as a simulacrum of intellectual provocation.

Succinct, direct and clear about the standards that have not been met; perhaps brutally so depending on your perspective.  Plus, you have to love a review that includes the sentence “Please, let’s leave my dingledom out of this.”

As is my habit, allow me to offer you a more positive review of the same book. Terrence Rafferty seemed to enjoy it more than Charles:

… “Andrew’s Brain” is in most respects clearly a cautionary tale about the perils of trying to think yourself out of pain. But the novel’s tone is weirdly sprightly. Doctorow amuses himself here with abrupt, hairpin swerves of mood, from lyrical to tragic to satiric to baggy-pants goofy, and appears to be having a much better time than the character he’s pretending to be. Andrew’s in hell, but his creator’s in heaven.

And maybe that’s what this wacky, dead serious novel is, in the end, all about: the uselessness and the pleasure of the mind’s operations. Andrew, because he has been confined to his brain unwillingly, condemned by the kangaroo court of history, can’t take much joy in its hectic machinery. One of the things that make him such a terrific comic creation is that he’s both maddeningly self-­delusive and scarily self-aware: He’s a fool, but he’s no innocent. (The novel reminds us that catastrophe can befall the not-so-innocent too.) “But it is dangerous to stare into yourself,” he says. “You pass through endless mirrors of self-estrangement. This too is the brain’s cunning, that you are not to know yourself.” Andrew may not be able to enjoy his brain, but Doctorow, freely choosing to inhabit this character’s whirligig consciousness, can. He pretends, and loses himself in play. It’s the novelist’s work. It’s what he does.


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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