Big as Life
March 12, 2014 | by Luke Epplin
E. L. Doctorow’s prescient, forgotten sci-fi novel.
No living novelist has written about New York City with as much historical insight as E. L. Doctorow, this generation’s bard of the five boroughs. It seemed only a matter of time, then, before Doctorow grappled in his fiction with 9/11. But the recently released Andrew’s Brain is an unlikely 9/11 novel, at least from Doctorow. For one, it’s deliberately narrow in scope, structured as a claustrophobic dialogue between the titular character, a hapless titular scientist, and his faceless interlocutor, presumably a psychiatrist. Like his contemporaries—Don DeLillo with Falling Man, John Updike with Terrorist—Doctorow approaches the event not on a grand scale but in miniature.
In rambling, unreliable anecdotes, Andrew cycles through the devastating events of his adult life. As a sleep-deprived graduate student, he accidentally poisons his newborn daughter with faultily prescribed medicine. After his wife divorces him, Andrew, wracked with guilt, decamps for a small college in the Wasatch Mountains. There he meets Briony, a buoyant undergraduate gymnast—a manic pixie dream girl if ever there was one. Her improbable love lifts Andrew from his self-pitying grief cycle and allows him to experience happiness, at least fleetingly. She and Andrew marry and move to New York City, where Briony gives birth to a baby girl. Shortly thereafter, on a routine morning jog through downtown Manhattan, Briony dies in the September 11 attacks. In helpless despair, Andrew drives to his ex-wife’s suburban home and hands her his infant daughter, seemingly as a replacement for the one he had neglectfully killed years earlier.
For a novelist renowned for his expansive narratives and populous casts, Doctorow’s treatment of the attacks is surprisingly intimate—until the novel takes its final turn, wherein Andrew, having started anew in Washington, D.C., has a chance encounter with his college roommate, who happens to be the president of the United States. The president appoints Andrew to newly devised government post and starts inviting him to high-level meetings, much to the annoyance of his top advisers, whom he dubs Chaingang and Rumbum. Though he’s never named, it’s obvious that the president is based on George W. Bush. Andrew describes him, with uncharacteristic vehemence, as “feckless, irresponsible, in over his head,” an incurious slacker whose family connections boosted him to the nation’s highest office. When the president tires of his presence, Andrew lashes out at him by performing a handstand in the Oval Office, which Chaingang and Rumbum interpret as a threat on the president’s life. Andrew is summarily whisked away to an unnamed location where he’s held indefinitely without trial, with only his mysterious interlocutor to confide in.
The last fifty pages of Andrew’s Brain are so cartoonish that they seem to belong to a different novel altogether, one written as a cathartic exercise in political wish fulfillment. What started as an intimate yet clinical tale of misfortune veers suddenly into political farce. On some level, Doctorow suggests that Andrew’s inability to empathize is reflective of the president’s callousness toward the lives of his constituents—an astute observation that’s undercut by the novel’s dismissiveness of that era’s political actors. Andrew’s Brain, so good in addressing the 9/11 attacks from a personal perspective, stumbles when it expands to a larger political context, sketching national figures with as much subtlety as cable news program. Doctorow is either unable or unwilling to portray post-9/11 America without resorting to ideological stereotypes.
But I’d argue that Doctorow has written another, more politically acute 9/11 novel: Big as Life, a science-fiction novel he published in 1966 and, following lukewarm reviews, subsequently disowned. He has refused to allow the book to be reprinted, and copies now sell for upward of $300 on auction websites. The only copy I could track down was in the special collections of the New York University Library, where the archivist instructed me to keep the book’s spine on a black foam stand at all times and to avoid handling the pages excessively.
Big as Life opens with a surreal occurrence: two giant humanoids, taller than the city’s skyscrapers, appear suddenly in the New York Harbor. Scores of people die amid the confusion, and the U.S. government quickly mobilizes to restore order. The city’s immediate fears are slightly alleyed when it’s discovered that the giants exist in a space-time continuum that’s considerably slower than our own. A simple action like touching one’s forehead takes the giants months to complete, which effectively neutralizes them. Regardless, the government reacts to the crisis by creating a byzantine new bureaucracy, NYCRAD (New York Command, Research, and Defense), whose shadowy activities are rubberstamped by special emergency laws passed in Congress. With little accountability, it soon swells into an agency whose overarching objective is simply to reinforce its own authority.
New York residents remain conflicted about NYCRAD’s overreach. Red, a struggling jazz musician, reasons that “even though you know the people who are running things have to be idiots, the trust, your feelings of trust, of don’t worry they will take care of us—they are taking care of everything—that feeling … It’s impossible to do without it.” But in the months following the giants’ appearance, the city’s initial unity wanes and resistance starts to mount, which NYCRAD attempts to defuse through curfews and tear gas attacks on unauthorized gatherings.
Big as Life was published during the Cold War, but it’s nearly impossible to read the novel now and not think of 9/11—both deal with an abrupt, unthinkable incident that transforms the physical and psychic landscapes of New York City. As Wallace Creighton, the novel’s scholarly protagonist, proclaims the following morning: “Yesterday’s news is dead. Everything before today is dead.” In both cases, lingering fears become justifications for the curtailment of civil liberties and the expansion of the state’s security operations. More poignantly, Big as Life’s New Yorkers soon become unable to imagine the city’s skyline without the presence of the previously unimaginable giants. As Wallace says: “I suppose what I think, finally, is that we can’t do without them. Now that they’re here we need them. We’re joined to them, they are in our world, they are our world.”
Doctorow claimed in a 1980 profile in the New York Times that Big as Life fails as a novel because he “overcontrolled” it—that is, he didn't push its outrageous conceit to its limit. He’s not entirely wrong. From the start, it’s clear that Big as Life won’t deliver much action. The giants never show signs of adjusting to earthly time nor threaten to wreak further havoc on the country, like the Martian invaders in H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Nor is Doctorow interested in postulating on the metaphysical processes that brought the giants to New York City in the first place. The novel’s premise may be fantastical, but its concerns are strictly earthbound. There’s no final confrontation in the end—either with the giants or between the citizens and the government. Even if NYCRAD destroys the giants as planned, their absences will haunt the city indefinitely.
Worse still, Big as Life lacks well-defined central characters. Red and Wallace—the fringe musician and the skeptical academic—register more as types than fully formed individuals. The novel smartly and evocatively explores the abuses of power that occur during national crises, but it fails to connect this collective response to a compelling personal perspective. Its flaws are, in some ways, the opposite of those in Andrew’s Brain, where the compelling personal narrative falters when it broadens to a larger political context.
In a 1991 interview with the Michigan Quarterly Review, Doctorow said, “I’ve always had the idea that I could fix [Big as Life] up, make it work, so I’ve not put it back into print. Although I have to admit right now that this is not uppermost in my mind as something to do.” It’s a shame that he didn’t take one more crack at Big as Life during the past decade. The hulking shadows that the novel’s giant humanoids cast over New York City have never seemed more terrifying or relevant.
Luke Epplin is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Atlantic.com, The New Yorker’s “Page-Turner,” and n+1.