The Man Without a Shadow
By Joyce Carol Oates
As neuroscientist Margo Sharpe, the protagonist in Joyce Carol Oates’s latest novel, learns, you can’t live and interact with someone without at least bits and pieces of their psyche insinuating into your own. Likewise with Oates, a writer whose wide-ranging curiosity has yielded a couple library shelves of first-rate, and often adventurous, novels; her second husband is a neuroscience professor emeritus at Princeton University. Perhaps readers should give him a little nod for this always engaging and regularly frustrating fiction about a man, Elihu Hoopes, who cannot remember anything for more than seventy-seconds, and thus cannot form new memories, his condition the result of an encephalitis infection at the age of thirty-seven. But that’s somewhat misleading, for the novel really focuses on Margo, a bundle of insecurity and neuroses involving her hunger for love, her questionable research decisions involving a human subject, her concerns about how she’s perceived professionally, and beyond her, the tricky business of ethics in research involving human beings.
Margo first meets Ehilu Hoopes, known as E.H., when she begins working toward her PhD under and in the clinic run by Milton Ferris at the University Neurological Institute at Darven Park, Pennsylvania. The year is 1965, the eve of the feminist revolution, meaning the clinic and the PhD program prove a lonely place for a lone young woman. Ferris takes a liking to her and involves her in the research on E.H. from the beginning, giving her more responsibilities over time, including the design of experiments and top-ranked authorship on the all-important journal papers. She becomes romantically involved with Ferris, an affair that continues over years, until he breaks it off. This intensifies her feelings for E.H., who for her is more than simply the subject of experimentation. She insinuates herself into E.H.’s family and imagines herself married to him, even though her rational self understands nothing can develop because he can’t remember who she is one minute to the next. Margo’s thoughts, perceptions, and actions, some bizarre in the context of her profession and her subject, occupy most of the novel.
As for E.H., you’ll find it quite amazing how much of a character Oates creates from a person who exists only briefly in the now. She uses repetition effectively to help us imagine how maddening, outside the intellectual challenge of accumulating knowledge about the human mind, interacting with E.H. must be, and in particular how desperate must be Margo for love and affection that she turns to a man who cannot remember her (a metaphor for marriage; let’s hope not). However, E.H. isn’t just a man of the now; he has had a whole life up to his thirty-seventh year. We learn some of it, in particular an incident that occurred as a boy when his cousin Gretchen went missing and turned up dead. A sense of responsibility haunts him.
Additionally, E.H. is more than a mentally crippled man: he is an invaluable research commodity, a one of a kind. Other researchers would love a piece of E.H. However, Ferris and then Margo, after she assumes control of the lab, will not share, will not allow any other researcher near their prized subject. You certainly can understand why but you wonder how a person can be regarded as so much lab property and even larger how having the same team working with him constantly advances the cause of research. Might not others add an additional dimension to understanding other aspects of the human mind? And, anyway, how can this possession, almost slavery, be ethical? While fiction, you wonder, how often does behavior like this happen?
So, lots here for the reader and all handled with Oates’s usual skill. w/c