Review: ‘The Man Without a Shadow’ by Joyce Carol Oates

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The Man Without a ShadowThe Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a brief illness destroys Elihu Hoopes’ short-term memory, he becomes frozen in time. Long term, he thinks he’s still the age he was when he became ill. Short term, he lives in the now of 70-second bursts of knowledge about what he’s doing and who he’s with. What he’s doing is living with a relative and coming to the university for testing intended to advance scientific knowledge about memory loss. This knowledge will help everyone but Elihu because he will probably never get any better.

In many ways, this novel reads like nonfiction with short scenes depicting the psychological testing Hoopes undergoes almost daily. As the novel proceeds, we learn more about the brilliant young researcher Margot Sharpe who begins work at the lab while working on her degree. She stays on. She becomes three-dimensional to the reader, but–we might speculate–one-dimensional to herself. And that one dimension appears to be an obsession with her “patient.”

The novel’s short scenes, with Oates’ typical reliance on up-close detail, tend to mimic Hoopes’ periods of contiguous present-day memory. As a person with a continuing existence, other characters (and the reader) know more about his life than he does–except for the past which for him is always yesterday. He sees others aging but is not aware he is aging.

As one reads, one suspects Sharpe’s life is in danger of losing it’s wholeness. She’s becoming famous for her brilliance as a researcher while becoming more single minded in her devotion to Hoopes. She questions not only the ethics of the testing, but also her own ethics wherein her feelings for Hoopes begin to look like a one-sided fantasy which has a history for her but not for him. He seems to have some consciousness of her over time even though she has to introduce herself every time she sees him–even if she leaves the room for a minute.

The opening lines of the novel tell you where all this is going:

“Notes on Amnesia Project ‘E.H.’ (1965-1996).
“She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
“She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
“She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
“At last, she says good-bye to him, thirty-one years after they’ve first met. On his deathbed, he has forgotten her.”

It’s a bumpy ride. Some readers will get lost with the repetition of the testing scenes, while others might find their eyes glazing with the titles of the scholarly papers that arise out of what Sharpe and her colleagues learn. Others will enjoy the exploration of Hoopes’ and Sharpe’s loneliness and how their fragmented lives fit together, and then they don’t, and then fit together, and then they don’t, rather like a jigsaw puzzle in a windstorm.

With diligence, and an ability to live only within the present moment while reading, readers will discover this book has something profound to offer them.

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–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of paranormal, magical realism, and contemporary fantasy.

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