The Neuronovel

In the latest N+1, Marco Roth takes a critical look at the rise of the "neuronovel":

The last dozen years or so have seen the emergence of a new strain within the Anglo-American novel. What has been variously referred to as the novel of consciousness or the psychological or confessional novel--the novel, at any rate, about the workings of a mind--has transformed itself into the neurological novel, wherein the mind becomes the brain. ince 1997, readers have encountered, in rough chronological order, Ian McEwan's Enduring Love (de Clérambault's syndrome, complete with an appended case history by a fictional "presiding psychiatrist" and a useful bibliography), Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (Tourette's syndrome), Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (autism), Richard Powers's The Echomaker (facial agnosia, Capgras syndrome), McEwan again with Saturday (Huntington's disease, as diagnosed by the neurosurgeon protagonist), Atmospheric Disturbances (Capgras syndrome again) by a medical school graduate, Rivka Galchen, and John Wray's Lowboy (paranoid schizophrenia). And these are just a selection of recently published titles in "literary fiction." There are also many recent genre novels, mostly thrillers, of amnesia, bipolar disorder, and multiple personality disorder. As young writers in Balzac walk around Paris pitching historical novels with titles like The Archer of Charles IX, in imitation of Walter Scott, today an aspiring novelist might seek his subject matter in a neglected corner or along some new frontier of neurology.

The essay is largely a lament for the decline of pre-neuroscientific novels, which weren't so infatuated with this "new reductionism of mind to brain, eagerly taken up by the press--especially the New York Times in its science pages." Here is Roth:

By comparison with most 19th-century novels, and even with most 20th-century modernist novels of the "stream of consciousness" school, the neuronovels have in them very little of society, of different classes, of individuals interacting, of development either alongside or against historical forces and expectations.

Instead, Roth argues that the new neuronovel subscribes to a cheap oversimplification of reality, in which "the proximate causes of mental function [are explained] in terms of neurochemistry, and ultimate causes in terms of evolution and heredity." The end result, Roth suggests, is "that the new genre of the neuronovel, which looks on the face of it to expand the writ of literature, appears as another sign of the novel's diminishing purview."

It's a perceptive and provocative essay, but I don't buy it. For one thing, Roth fails to place the new "neuronovel" in its proper historical context. There is nothing new or trendy about novelists borrowing the language and theories of contemporary science, or even indulging in reductionism and determinism when it suits their aesthetic principles. Consider Emile Zola, the proud founder of naturalism who aspired to write "the scientific novel." The novelist, Zola declared, must literally become a scientist, "employing the experimental method in their study of man." Unfortunately, this led Zola to proclaim his blind faith in heredity and biological determinism. As he wrote in his preface to Therese Raquin, "I have chosen people completely dominated by their nerves and blood, without free will, drawn to each action by the inexorable laws of their physical nature." Of course, Zola's theories are now woefully obsolete. As Oscar Wilde declared, "Zola sits down to give us a picture of the Second Empire. Who cares for the Second Empire now? It is out of date. Life goes faster than Realism."

The point is that the "reductionism" and "chemical determinism" that have supposedly been embraced by 21st century neuronovelists is both 1) not new and 2) far more subtle and nuanced than the reductionism and determinism celebrated by many 19th century realists. There's a long and rich history of fiction interacting with the latest scientific facts, and I think it's important to understand the neuronovel in this context. George Eliot famously described her novels as a "a set of experiments in life." (She was particularly interested in contesting the ideas of "social physics," the determinism of her day.) Virginia Woolf, before she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, said that in her new novel the "psychology should be done very realistically." Gertrude Stein did research on automatic writing with William James, before doing research in a neuroanatomy lab at Johns Hopkins. Whitman worked in Civil War hospitals and corresponded for years with the neurologist who discovered phantom limb syndrome. (He also kept up with phrenology, the brain science of his day.) Or look at Coleridge. When the poet was asked why he attended so many lectures on chemistry, he gave a great answer: "To improve my stock of metaphors". In other words, this dialogue between contemporary art and contemporary science isn't some newfangled idea, or some 21st century publishing trend designed to sell books. Rather, it's part of a distinguished attempt to grapple with the implications of scientific theory, to understand how our new facts fit with our experience.

The second problem I have with Roth's essay is his misreading of many of the neuronovels he cites. Let's begin with Saturday, Ian McEwan's 2005 retelling of Mrs. Dalloway. The protoganist of the novel is a neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne. Roth reads Saturday as a brief in favor of "stark biological determinism":

We're always in Perowne's scientific mind, a mind capable of reflecting on itself in up-to-date terms of neuroscience, though we also catch glimpses of his creator guiding us, as in the surgeon's reflections on the superiority of neuroscience to ordinary language. When Perowne drives by an antiwar demonstration, a host of half thoughts arise, on war, death, terrorism, the justness of the cause. A voice tells us that all this occurs in "the pre-verbal language that linguists call mentalese. Hardly a language, more a matrix of shifting patterns, consolidating and compressing meaning in fractions of a second. . . . Even with a poet's gift of compression, it could take hundreds of words and many minutes to describe." Of course McEwan has almost done just that, even down to the color of Perowne's thoughts--"a sickly yellow"--but only while conceding the insufficiency of his chosen medium, like a painter ruing the fact that he is not a photographer.

I'd argue that Saturday is stuffed full of ambiguity. Instead of simply embracing the one-dimensional world view of the neurosurgeon, McEwan strives to constantly complicate it. As I wrote in Proust Was A Neuroscientist:

McEwan simultaneously contests the materialist world his character inhabits. Though Henry disdains philosophy and is bored by fiction, he is constantly lost in metaphysical reveries. As he picks up fish for dinner, Henry wonders "what the chances are, of this particular fish, from that shoal, ending up in the pages, no, on this page of this copy of the Daily Mirror? Something just short of infinity to one. Similarly, the grains of sand on a beach, arranged just so. The random ordering of the world, the unimaginable odds against any particular condition." And yet, despite the odds, our reality holds itself together: the fish is there, wrapped in newspaper in the plastic bag. Existence is a miracle.

It is also a precarious miracle. Woolf showed us this with Septimus, whose madness served to highlight the fragility of sanity. McEwan chooses Baxter, a man suffering from Huntington's disease, to produce a parallel effect. Baxter's disease, thinks the neurosurgeon, "is biological determinism in its purest form. The misfortune lies within a single gene, in an excessive repeat of a single sequence--CAG." There is no escape from this minor misprint.

But McEwan doesn't make the logical mistake of believing that such a deterministic relationship is true of life in general. Henry knows that the real gift of our matter is to let us be more than matter. While operating on an exposed brain, Henry ruminates on the mystery of consciousness. He knows that even if science "solves" the brain, "The wonder will remain. That mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its center. Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes conscious?"

Saturday does not answer the question. Instead, the novel strives to remind us, again and again, that the question has no answer. We will never know how the mind turns the water of our cells into the wine of consciousness. Even Baxter, a man defined by his tragic genetic flaw, is ultimately altered by a poem. When Henry's daughter begins reciting Mathew Arnold's "Dover Beach," a poem about the melancholy of materialism, Baxter is transfixed. The words "touched off a yearning he could barely begin to define." The plot of Saturday hinges on this chance event, on a mind being moved by nothing more real than rhyming words. Poetry sways matter. Could anything be less likely?

McEwan ends Saturday the way he began it: in the dark, in the present tense, with Henry in bed. It has been a long day. As Henry is drifting off to sleep, his last thoughts are not about the brain, or surgery, or materialism. All of that seems far away. Instead, Henry's thoughts return to the only reality we will ever know: our experience. The feeling of consciousness. The feeling of feeling. "There's always this, is one of his remaining thoughts. And then: there's only this."

McEwan's work is a potent demonstration that, even in this age of dizzying scientific detail, the artist remains a necessary voice. Through the medium of fiction, McEwan explores the limits of science while doing justice to its utility and eloquence. Though he never doubts our existence as a property of matter--this is why the surgeon can heal our wounds--McEwan captures the paradox of being a mind aware of itself. While we are a brain, we are the brain that contemplates its own beginnings.

Update: Be sure to check out Marco Roth's extremely smart and insightful reply in the comments below.


More like this

McEwan may be an exception, but I haven't come across a modern novelist since the likes of Saul Bellow whose work reflected or in any way satisfied our quest for some substantial element of wisdom from the tellers of our stories.

Scientific philosophy supplies us with a form of wisdom. Scientific phenomena and its related behavioral litany is inadequate as a substitute source.

I agree. The neuronovel really isn't a new concept, though it has naturally changed in some ways as science has provided new insights.

It's interesting: one could argue that the 20th century modernists/stream-of-consciousness writers and 21st century neuronovelists are participating in some kind of reductionism - but I feel like that word doesn't quite capture what's going on in their particular fiction. Even in novels where the mind is "reduced" to the brain and its components - to the firings of synapses, to fleeting emotions and moments of involuntary memory - I do not feel that a more complex system (the mind) has been "simplified" into more "basic" elements (the components of the brain).

Instead, it seems that stream of consciousness fiction and neuronovels often emphasize the complexity and mystery of both the mind and brain. Yes, thinking of the mind in terms of the brain or vice versa can yield a more comprehensive understanding, but it doesn't take away the fundamental mystery of it all, the eternal question of consciousness. As you say, a question that doesn't have an answer.

I think Jonah's first criticism of Marco's essay is off-target. The emphasis of Marco's essay falls on the newness of neuroscience, specifically, in novels -- not science in general.

The big conclusion in Marco's essay is that by locating their stories squarely in the minds of people whose brains function in unusual -- and scientifically defined -- ways, the authors of "neuronovels" make it impossible for most readers to identify strongly with the story. If you don't have the condition that the protagonist has -- and you'd know if you did, because it's a well-documented condition -- you can never walk in the protagonist's shoes.

It's recent advances in neuroscience in particular -- not the author's willingness to draw on science in general -- that make this rift possible.

Brian -

Don't you think it's very possible to 'walk in the protagonist's shoes,' to understand the mind of someone with "unusual" conditions, because: (1) all conditions and disorders exist on a spectrum; and (2) every single one of us will have something in common with some kind of disorder?

Think of the way people use 'obsessive-compulsive' to describe their own tendencies, though they may not be diagnosed with OCD. You don't have to be schizophrenic to know what a hallucination is. Sane people call themselves crazy all the time, in everyday moments of lapse.

And love has often been compared to a kind of insanity in literature and art.

A huge part of Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway is that Septimus Smith (insane) and Mrs. Dalloway (apparently sane) are parallels.


Sure, we use these conditions metaphorically. I think you're speaking to the heart of what Marco wrote in that essay. Before we pinpointed these neurological conditions, it was easier to see ourselves on a spectrum with these characters. If you've ever gotten worked up about something and flown off the handle, you can identify with a character like Lionel Essrog. But when Lethem tells us that Lionel has Tourette's, he makes Lionel's behavior fall outside the spectrum of our own behavior. Tourette's is something you either have or you don't. Those of us who don't have it can ONLY understand it -- and Lionel -- by making a metaphorical leap.

Dear Jonah,

Thank you for reading and responding to my neuronovel essay. It's always a pleasure to have such an erudite interlocutor. That said, I think you're misreading what you've called my misreadings of both McEwan's "Saturday" and literary history. All those misreadings are probably my fault, so I'd like to seize the chance to clarify some of my arguments: 1. On "Saturday"-- I'd like to agree with you that McEwan's use of the third-person limited and free indirect style does, as you suggest, precisely encourage the reader to question how Perowne sees the world. Indeed this was my initial reading of the novel, one I would have been content to maintain if McEwan hadn't come out and accused his readers of getting him wrong in that New Yorker profile I quote from in the piece. McEwan clearly does want us to see the world as Perowne sees it. We are in his head the whole time because his head is exemplary, the perfect brain for our time. The challenges Perowne faces in the novel are challenges to his and his family's biological survival, not to his philosophy and conduct of life. Baxter is the challenge, a human plot device, not a separately-circulating character, and that's one of the many ways that he's not Septimus Smith. I also confess myself confused as to how the passage you cite contradicts the one I cited. We are still in Henry's head, and a reflection on the beauty or "miracle" (your words, not McEwan's) of certain random arrangements does not really bear, one way or another, on the argument I'm making. The passage you cite does seem to work in ironic counterpoint with the plot of "Saturday" as a whole, which is basically a series of "hit or miss" random events: That Perowne takes an illegal turn, b/c of that demonstration that just happened to be there, that he has an accident with an unstable and neurologically damaged man, these are also "miracles" of pattern and arrangement. But "why these things and not others?" If McEwan was George Eliot, then Baxter would not have been a person suffering from Huntington's Chorea but a person suffering,like Bulstrode's blackmailer, in Middlemarch, from a sense that England owes him a living. But McEwan does not want Saturday to be a social novel or even a novel that raises uncomfortable social questions. He wants it to be a novel about how neurology expresses itself in society, or, as you suggest, more charitably, a novel of how brains can take themselves as objects. Still, one wonders why, if we buy your reading of McEwan, he had to pack the novel with all the action and pseudo action he put into it. Are they just bait for the contemporary reader with a notoriously short attention span? How did this contemporary reader develop such a short attention span? Why isn't it enough to have a party, like in Mrs. Dalloway?

This brings us to literary history. You're absolutely right, of course, that "there is nothing new or trendy about novelists borrowing the language and theories of contemporary science, or even indulging in reductionism and determinism when it suits their aesthetic principles." I don't think I argued that it was new or trendy, at least it wasn't my intention to argue that. Also, I'm not in the least anti-science. What I wanted to question was how fruitful the current and, yes, new relation between novelists and neuroscience is for novelists. I used the word "strain" in my first sentence for a reason and not just for wit. Perhaps I should have expanded on it and said that neuronovels will be seen to be a kind of dead-end mutation in what has often been a fruitful relationship between literature and science, in part for the reasons that commenter Brian Hurley has very neatly summarized (thank you, Brian!).

You're right to bring up Zola, but I used "anglo-american" in that first sentence for a reason, too. There's an entire French tradition of the novel as, itself, a kind of science that can offer not just a mimesis of reality but an account of reality more real than ordinary experience of the phenomenal world. So you go from Balzac's planned "secret history of the 19th century," to Zola, up to Sarraute and Robbe Grillet. Anyway, I wanted to bracket that tradition, just to keep a sprawling topic somewhat more focused. But since you've brought it up, I'll say that my reading of Zola is that he's most interesting precisely when he most fails to be "scientific" in the ways he thought he was being. "La Bete Humaine" is a great novel about how the railroads and speed changed human relations. It's less interesting to me when it tries to establish whether there's a hereditary propensity for murder. Could Zola have written La Bete Humaine without the engine of his proto-genetics? I'd say yes.
My point is that contemporary novelists unnecessarily restrict themselves when they focus on questions of genetic or neurological causes for human behavior. I have nothing against scientists who want to do research into the neurobiology of aggression. But I do think neuronovels and their authors have forsaken the world, too quickly, and the existing state of neuroscience does not help them to regain it. A novel like John Wray's Lowboy has some excellent descriptions of the New York City subway system and teenage sex, but it subordinates those descriptions to what purports to be a clinically accurate account of a schizophrenic mind. Worse, it's resolute in closing off the schizophrenic's reality from non-schizo reality. This is a conservative move, both from the standpoint of literary history and socially. Despite the author's sympathy for his character, Wray is not like Deleuze claiming, in Anti-Oedipus, that ordinary minds can learn to think schizophrenically, or that schizo reality could help us to better understand what the rest of us call reality: "Lift not the Painted Veil that those who live call life." I also don't have a problem with poets or novelists learning or borrowing from science to describe effects or generate metaphors. A problem does arise, however, when these borrowings are intended as both realism and metaphor at the same time.

Now I'm going to cheat and repeat part of a comment I posted elsewhere:

The more accurate the science in the novel, right now, the less that novel tells us about people who do not suffer from those specific neurochemical disorders. Scientists haven't yet been able to show, for instance, what the specific chemical or neuro-receptor is that makes McEwan's Jed Parry a victim of DeClerambaut's syndrome and what makes someone else your garden-variety stalker and someone else a devoted, monogamous husband. Is it a question of different quantities of the same chemical or different reception of the same quantity of chemical? Those are the kind of questions that these novels make me ask, as a reader. They don't make me think "this is a great description of what it sounds like to be in love." Or, rather, they do sometimes make me think that, and, when they make me think that, they also make me think someone is cheating, because either this is what a neuro-chemically anomalous person in love sounds like, or this is what a neurologically normal person sounds like. We also know that these are passages written by neurologically normal people pretending to be neurologically abnormal people. The contemporary fiction writer cannot write lyrically except in the character of a person with a disorder. You don't find this a problem?

For contrast, here's a passage from DH Lawrence's The Trespasser (1912), from the standpoint of, quite simply, a woman in love:

"She had no idea what he thought or felt. All she knew was that he was strong, and was knocking urgently with his heart on her breast, like a man who wanted something, and who dreaded to be sent away. How he came to be so concentratedly urgent she could not understand. It seemed an unreasonable, an incomprehensible obsession, to her. Yet she was glad, and she smiled in her heart, feeling triumphant and restored. Yet again, dimly, she wondered where was the Siegmund of ten minutes ago, and her heart lifted slightly with yearning, to sink with a dismay. This Siegmund was so incomprehensible. Then again, when he raised his head and found her mouth, his lips filled her with a hot flush like wine, a sweet, flaming flush of her whole body, most exquisite, as if she were nothing but a soft rosy flame of fire against him for a moment or two. That, she decided, was supreme, transcendental."

Now you might say "kissing doesn't feel like that to me..." but that's a conversation, and you wouldn't have to say "kissing doesn't feel that way to me because I'm not a synesthetic, as Lawrence clearly intended his character to be." He wouldnât have thought of her as âsynesthetic,â he would have thought of her as a woman in love. So it's not a problem with determinism, the problem is that neuronovels usually work by taking what used to be the property of all of us, e.g. that transcendental feeling that Lawrence's woman in love experiences, and fashion it into something that must be given a medically certifiable excuse for showing up in a novel. It's narrowing, itâs defensive, itâs bad for art. Also, possibly, bad for science, but that's another long conversation.

By Marco Roth (not verified) on 02 Nov 2009 #permalink

...seems to me that the dilemma of the modern novel (art) is the dynamic and tension of living in "worlds" designed, largely thru trial and error, to satisfy "every" "need"... effectively economies designed around our brain's, primarily primordial, cravings...of course, culture dresses them up in socially acceptable, even fun (pop), wrappings....i'm not saying itz bad...who knows?

...what business isn't designed around our brain's...largely unconscious...cravings...primarily fear and novelty as i understand it...

...anyway writers and other artists seemed to feel and articulate this seemingly aggressive and infinite "satisfaction" of our brain's "needs"...and it kinda made them whoosy...."whooooaaaa!?..whatz goin on here!?"..

...Joyce's Ulysses seems to lead the pack...of course it was/still iz unintelligible..but i'm gettin the suspicion that our own tech hyper-drive living iz accelerating to his stream of (un)consciousness...

...the end of the novel and Molly Bloom's ecstatic.."yes, yes, yes..." in sex seems not any sort of affirmation of life....well maybe in a pop way...but more the addicts direct injection of our brain's "crazed" impulsive drives...

...again, whether any of this has a social moral valence...heck, who knows...or really cares...?..i sure don't...

....blah, blah, i'd propose that all novel have been becoming more neuro...based mainly on the tech for peering "inside"...

...PS - as an experiment i'm gonna run Ulysses thru my iPod...i'll bet the sucker tracks my crack-culture, hyper-drive experience....everything-all-the-time.....

I am not sure that Zola was wrong at all. If indeed we are limited by determinism, that remains an interesting pretext for creativity. I think that the n+1 article doesn't see far enough inside the brain to enjoy the complexities of it.

Really guys, ever spam much? come on, at least read the article if your going to comment. But hey, do you have a newsletter I could subscribe to for future articles?

jane6953 - Did you see that I did that for you? xoxo (as they say...I mean 'as they type'). ;-p

By Song Voyer (not verified) on 25 Aug 2011 #permalink

Amazing documentary. I was truly impressed with the thoroughness of financial history in only two hours. Having again and again told others that nearly everything today has an analogous pair in history, I can only hope after watching that the world will finally learn from history. Great job on this documentary.