One of the most original writers today, Joyce Carol Oates is famous for her fascinating, controversial and at times gothic portrayal of the human mind. Her latest novel, The Man Without a Shadow, is a perceptive study of the importance of memories in identity formation. Her concise prose and shrewdly crafted narrative add to the scientific nature of her subject matter.
At the beginning of her prosperous career, a young and ambitious research scientist named Margot Sharpes meets a peculiar patient suffering from amnesia in the neuropsychology laboratory of a university. Elihu Hoopes sustained heavy brain damage after an infection and high fever which rendered him incapable of retaining any memory for longer than 70 seconds. He’ll always be 37 years old, “forever, he will be confused about where he is, and what has happened to him.” He is the man without a shadow because without the ability to form new memories he is stuck in the present moment. For the next 30 years he is subjected to a series of repetitive research studies at the so-called memory laboratory.
On their first meeting Sharpes feels an inexplicable connection with Hoopes, and proceeds to build her entire career on her studies of him. She is attracted to her friendly, gentlemanly and deeply lonely research subject; all the qualities that make him attractive to most of the women working in the lab — including her supervisor. Her great empathy for Hoopes springs from her own loneliness and inability to connect with other people. For her, work is her addiction as well as her salvation because she can make visible progress in her work and get noticed by her superiors for her success.
Joyce Carol Oates’s latest novel is a story set on the cusp of scientific inquiry and personal agenda
A problematic relationship with her supervisor develops, not so much as a result of her trying to better her prospects, but as she finds herself inexplicably drawn to Hoopes. Having no other friends she turns to Hoopes to share her worries and find comfort. The relationship which started quite innocently takes a sinister turn over the years. Hoopes does not only go through meandering behaviourist research studies on memory formation but becomes a victim of Sharpes’s belief that they are both deeply in love with each other.
If she is agonized by the fact that he won’t remember her, she is also convinced that he remembers her, “not consciously — but he remembers.”
Oates’s narrative has the atmospheric feeling of being eerie, dark and distressing. Instead of coming across as romantic Sharpes’s secret relationship with Hoopes seems manipulative as she plays tricks on his mind and takes advantage of the fact that he won’t be able to remember what she tells him. Even though he does not remember her from one meeting to the other, she convinces herself that she is the only person who has Hoopes’s best interest at heart, and goes so far as to put a wedding band on his finger when they are alone.
“I felt sorry for people who had to jot down their appointments in their diary, sometimes months in advance. Everything was pre-arranged for them, and they would never wait for anyone. They would never know how time throbs, dilates, then falls slack again; how it gradually gives you that feeling of holidays and infinity that others seek in drugs, but that I found just in waiting. Deep down, I felt sure you would come sooner or later … ”.— Excerpt from the book
Sharpes finds it disturbing that “catastrophe in one life precipitates hope and anticipation in others”, but tries to justify their experimental studies as necessary for scientific advancement, a quest for the truth that is elusive, deep-lying. After their disturbing studies she comes to the conclusion that much in nature is “unnatural.”
As with many of her other works, the female protagonist is not sympathised with or even fully understood. On the other hand, Hoopes has a dark past involving a dead cousin that still haunts him. Moreover, as Sharpes digs into his past she finds that he was a confident man with a streak of vanity. It’s his desire to be well-liked that makes him a cooperative subject. Although Sharpes’s ethics are highly questionable and Hoopes’s constant flirtation annoying, one cannot help but feel pity for both of them as her delusional and obsessive romance is nearly as inhibiting as his imprisonment in the present moment.
Sharpes’s attitude towards gender equality is disturbing to say the least; being female, she believes, is to be weak, a mere “second choice.” Brilliance, in her opinion, is not enough for women as it is a masculine attribute. Hence, to balance your professional brilliance “you must be suitably feminine — which isn’t to say emotionally unstable, volatile, ‘soft’ in any way, only just quiet, watchful, quick to absorb information, non-oppositional, self-effacing.”
Oates is a masterful narrator who digs disturbingly deep into her complex characters’ psyches. The Man Without a Shadow is as thought-provoking as her other novels, albeit repetitive and a little boring. At the same time, however, I felt drawn to the story as the unchanging fates of both characters indicate the futility of life: “We have lives that are true lives, and we have lives that are accidental lives. The relationship between them is always shifting back to zero. Always, they are discovering each other for the first time”. Sharpes might have become a pioneer scientist in her field but in the end she is as unsatisfied and unhappy as any other human, a captive of the unchanging present.
The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer and critic.
The Man Without a Shadow
By Joyce Carol Oates
ECCO Press, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 26th, 2016