I can tell you about my friend Andrew, the cognitive scientist. But it's not pretty. One evening he appeared with an infant in his arms at the door of his ex-wife, Martha. Because Briony, his lovely young wife after Martha, had died.
We'll get to that. I can't do this alone, Andrew said, as Martha stared at him from the open doorway. It happened to have been snowing that night, and Martha was transfixed by the soft creature-like snowflakes alighting on Andrew's NY Yankees hat brim. Martha was like that, enrapt by the peripheral things as if setting them to music. Even in ordinary times, she was slow to respond, looking at you with her large dark rolling protuberant eyes. Then the smile would come, or the nod, or the shake of the head. Meanwhile the heat from her home drifted through the open door and fogged up Andrew's eyeglasses. He stood there behind his foggy lenses like a blind man in the snowfall and was without volition when at last she reached out, gently took the swaddled infant from him, stepped back, and closed the door in his face.
This was where?
Martha lived then in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York, in a neighborhood of large homes of different styles — Tudor, Dutch Colonial, Greek Revival — most of them built in the 1920s and '30s, houses set back from the street with tall old Norway maples the predominant trees. Andrew ran to his car and came back with a baby carrier, a valise, two plastic bags filled with baby needs. He banged on the door: Martha, Martha! She is six months old, she has a name, she has a birth certificate. I have it here, open the door please, Martha, I am not abandoning my daughter, I just need some help, I need help!
The door opened and Martha's husband, a large man, stood there. Put those things down, Andrew, he said. Andrew did as he was told and Martha's large husband thrust the baby back into his arms. You've always been a fuck-up, Martha's large husband said. I'm sorry your young wife has died but I expect that she's dead of some stupid mistake on your part, some untimely negligence, one of your thought experiments, or famous intellectual distractions, but in any event something to remind us all of that gift you have of leaving disaster in your wake.
Andrew put the baby in the baby carrier that lay on the ground, lifted the carrier with the baby, and walked slowly back to his car, nearly losing his balance on the slick path. He fastened a seat belt around the carrier in the backseat, returned to the house, picked up the plastic bags and the valise and carried them to the car. When everything was secured, he closed the car door, drew himself up, turned, and found Martha standing there with a shawl around her shoulders. All right, she said.
Go on ...
No, I'm just thinking of something I read about the pathogenesis of schizophrenia and bipolar disease. The brain biologists are going to get to that with their gene sequencing, finding the variations in the genome — those protein suckers attached to the teleology. They'll give them numbers and letters, snipping away a letter here, adding a number there, and behold the disease will be no more. So, Doc, you're in trouble with your talking cure.
Don't be too sure.
Trust me, you'll be on unemployment. What else can we do as eaters of the fruit of the tree of knowledge but biologize ourselves? Expunge the pain, extend the life. You want another eye, say, in the back of your head? That can be arranged. Put your rectum in your knee? Not a problem. Even give you wings if you want, though the result would not be flying aloft but more like giant skips, floating megastrides as on those tracks that are like flattened escalators moving along the long airport corridors. And how do we know God would not want this, perfecting his fucked-up imperfect idea of life as an irremediable condition? We're his backup plan, his fail-safe. God works through Darwin.
So Martha took the baby after all?
I think also of how we decay in our rotting coffins, and how we reincarnate, the little microgenetic fragments of us sucked into the gut of a blind worm that rises it knows not why to wiggle in the rain-soaked soil only to die on the sharp beak of a house wren. Hey, that's my living genome-fragged ID shat from the sky and landing with a plop on the branch of a tree and dripping over the branch like a wet bandage. And lo! I am become a nutrient of a tree fighting for its life. That's true, you know, how those immobile standing-fast vascular creatures silently struggle for their existence as do we with one another, trees fighting for the same sun, the same soil in which they root themselves, and strewing the seeds that will become their forest enemies, like the princes to their king fathers in the ancient empires. But they're not completely motionless. In a high wind they do their dance of despair, the trees in heavy leaf swaying this way and that, throwing their arms up in their helpless fury of being what they are ... Well, it's a short step from anthropomorphism to hearing voices.
You hear voices?
Ah, I knew that would get your attention. Usually as I'm falling asleep. In fact I know I'm falling asleep when I hear them. And that wakes me up. I didn't want to tell you this and here I am telling you.
What do they say?
I don't know. Weird things. But I don't really hear them. I mean, they are definitely voices but at the same time they're soundless.
Excerpted from Andrew's Brain, by E.L. Doctorow. Copyright 2014 by E.L Doctorow. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.