Joyce Carol Oates, a prolific writer, has a very distinctive style and her books address societal issues in a consistent and often disturbing manner. Her story lines usually address issues of gender inequality, include some sort of sexual impropriety and the lead character frequently devolves into mental illness. These are the JCO constants which revolve around a unique story and “The Man Without A Shadow” is no exception.
The Man Without A Shadow begins with an introduction to Margot Sharpe, a 24 year old neuropsychology graduate student who has the good fortune to have been accepted into Professor Milton Ferris’s neuropsychology lab at the university in Darven Park, Pennsylvania. Professor Ferris is a highly renowned and rather intimidating expert on memory issues and is conducting testing on Eli Hoopes (E.H.), an amnesiac. E. H.’s amnesia is the result of brain damage from encephalitis, contracted when he was 37 years old. E.H. can remember things that occurred prior to the onset of encephalitis but has no short term memory of anything that occurs after. He believes that he is perpetually age 37, even as he ages throughout the story.
The story unfolds over a period of almost 40 years, during which Margot Sharpe and others subject E.H. to a variety of memory tests at Darven Park on a regular and frequent basis. Joyce Carol Oates tells the story of E.H. and Margot Sharpe in layers, with each layer of the story building on the last.
E.H is a highly educated man from a wealthy family whose education and upbringing are still present in his interactions with others. He has an interesting past, and periodically can be found sketching scenes which represent some of the troubles of that past. He is described as a man who “feels keenly his disabilities without being able to comprehend them.” At one point E.H. wonders aloud, “Can there be a person without a shadow? Without a memory is like being without a shadow.”
Margot Sharpe is from Michigan but has looked forward to “beginning her life” away from Michigan and her family. She turns her back on her Michigan roots, dedicating her life to the study of E.H. and memory. She becomes a highly renowned and awarded expert in the field over the 40 year period of the book. Her obsession with E.H. presents itself in her isolation and her inability to live in the world external to her work, a parallel to E.H.’s inability to live in the world outside his past.
The book poses interesting questions about the ethics of human experimentation and the opportunism of scientific progress dependent on human misfortune. If you are a JCO fan, then you will understand when I say the book is highly disturbing and yet deeply compelling. Somehow you just have to read it. You can reserve “The Man Without A Shadow” at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11199362__Sthe%20man%20without%20a%20shadow__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold