Review published on May 18, 2016.
In Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel The Man without a Shadow, Margot Sharpe, a neuroscientist at a prestigious institute, makes the “E.H.” Project her life’s work.
“E.H.” is Elihu Hoopes , a privileged son of a rich Philadelphia family, a Renaissance man, athletic, well read, artistic and witty, who at 37 has had his short term memory cut to 70 seconds by encephalitis fever.
Elihu can form no new short-term memories and is completely incapacitated by his disability. Margot is not his doctor because he can’t be healed. Rather he is her experiment, so that this vulnerable man is put through a series of tests for the neuroscience community to gain insight into the human brain, and specifically into memory. There is grant money and acclaim to be gained for the scientists – Margot’s PhD supervisor and one time lover even harvests a Nobel prize – but little obvious benefit to Elihu himself. It seems possible that he is only capable of bearing the gruelling routine over 40 years because he retains nothing of his existence. There is more than a suggestion of exploitation. While the scientists are very careful to maintain Elihu’s anonymity and unwilling to provide access to his brain to others the situation raises all sorts of ethical questions in the reader’s mind even before Oates complicates the landscape further.
The jacket blurb leads us to believe that The Man without a Shadow is about Elihu’s life but that can hardly be so as there are only rare insights into his pre-amnesia life and for the majority of the book his memory only works on a 70 second cycle. Without a past it is difficult for Elihu or the reader to know who he was, is or will be; very quickly more of his life has been spent in 70 second bursts than not.
Really The Man without a Shadow is the story of Margot Sharpe’s decline from engaged young woman to a lonely and isolated eccentric. She and Elihu have a lot in common in their loneliness, their institutionalised isolation and near friendlessness. Margot falls in love with Elihu. I have a problem with this. I struggle to understand how love can grow where so little is known of the object of that love. Admittedly Margot does her best to find out about Elihu but apart from test results everything informative about him stops with the fever. How can one love someone you have to re-introduce yourself to everyday and frequently more often? Surely this suggests either a distinct lack of ego on Margot’s part or a sinister desire for control. As unsettling, if not more so is her sexual desire for him. We are told the damage wrought by the fever has not knocked out the parts of Elihu’s brain concerned with desire so that is understandable. But for Margot to desire a person so vulnerable and so in her care is repugnant. The description of their first lovemaking is unsettling even before Oates describes Margot having to straighten Elihu’s clothes and hair because he can’t or wouldn’t think to. This looks less like love than abuse.
Elihu lives into old age without ever recovering his memory leaving a healthy 37 year old in his own head. He has the comfort of remembering neither pain nor pleasure. He has no fear of the future and no sense of a loss of control. Almost he retains his sense of identity, albeit a deluded one, without responsibility. Unhappily the same cannot be said of Margot whose life has become railroaded by her love or obsession for Elihu. She retains her memories of the pleasure she has had but also the heartbreak.
The Man without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates
Fourth Estate 978-0-00-816538-3 pbk Jan 2016
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