In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Žižek’s rambling psychoanalytic diagnosis of classic Hollywood films, the Slovenian philosopher claims that the three Marx Brothers—Groucho, Chico and Harpo—each represent a single element of the Freudian psyche: superego, ego and id, respectively. A similar scheme is at play in E.L. Doctorow’s twelfth novel, Andrew’s Brain (Random House; $26), which is structured as an ongoing conversation in an undisclosed location in the early 2000s between a middle-aged cognitive scientist named Andrew and someone he calls “Doc,” presumably his psychotherapist, though Doc’s identity is never made explicit. The novel features two speaking characters at most, but many more personalities. Throughout, Andrew refers to himself alternately as the Holy Fool (spontaneous, gregarious, smoking a cigar), Sir Andrew the Pretender (happy, rational, ephemeral) and “the brain,” the uncharted territory of desire that Andrew, good neurobiologist that he is, reasons is probably separate from “the mind.” A wacky conversation ensues among these modes of consciousness, which Doctorow orchestrates very well for comedic and tragic effect.

The reader does not discover until the end of the novel precisely why Andrew is in therapy, but it is apparent early on that life has not been kind to him. As a child, he accidentally causes the death of a man who crashes his car trying to avoid young Andrew, playing in the street. The incident barely leaves skid marks on Andrew’s memory. In his second go at prelapsarian bliss, Andrew, now a professor of cognitive science, takes up with a former student of his, Briony, who is endlessly imbued with all the qualities of a ray of sunshine and nothing more. But Briony dies, unexpectedly, as does Andrew’s daughter from his first marriage. The novel then shifts dramatically in the last fifty pages after Andrew accepts a job at the White House from President George W. Bush—who, it turns out, was his college roommate at Yale—and the pressure mounts around the question that comes to eclipse all the others in the novel: Is Andrew just pulling Doc’s leg? This is where Doctorow’s storytelling really shines—in his willingness to engage the rigmarole of wit and the unconscious.

Andrew throws out other starchy theories of mind to see what sticks: we are all victims of “cephalic instruction,” we are worker bees with a single hive-mind, our brains make decisions before we do. As a result, the story often affects a cynical tone and prescribes a bitter pill: “If consciousness exists without the world, it is nothing, and if it needs the world to exist, it is still nothing,” Andrew whines, to no effect. Andrew’s struggle to understand his condition is more successful when, instead of squirming in the existential void, he acknowledges the cacophony of voices that sound within him. “You pass through endless mirrors of self-estrangement,” he says. “This too is the brain’s cunning, that you are not to know yourself.”

The wonderful classicist Norman O. Brown, a man who never shied away from getting caught in the crosshairs of philosophy and psychology, once wrote that the difference between dream and wit, according to Freud’s Wit and the Unconscious, is “that the one primarily guards against pain, while the other seeks pleasure.” Andrew’s mind, for the most part, obeys this formulation. Andrew can neither climb out of his memories nor cease trying, using wit as his ladder. Meanwhile, what is “dream” in his story remains perpetually unclear, obscured by a hoedown of Andrews, and what was suffered crumbles into a ruin of suspicions. “We’re all Pretenders, Doctor, even you. Especially you,” Andrew says. “Why are you smiling?”