He’s seems like such a pleasant man, so courteous and respectful, incapable of holding a grudge for more than 70 seconds. Elihu Hoopes is a marvel, scientifically speaking, a godsend for neurologist Margot Sharpe, who doesn’t just look at him and see the possibility of answers to elusive mysteries of biologies, but a rare and deeply personal connection.
Hoopes is an amnesiac, suffering from Memento syndrome. Years ago a fever swelled his brain and now he’s stuck in a perpetual present tense, unable to track conversations or remember faces after they leave his eyesight. So when Sharpe, who meets him as a student and decides to dedicate her life and career to him, tells him that they are married and in love, he reciprocates her affection. For a minute.
Memory is the battleground of Joyce Carol Oates’ The Man Without A Shadow, a novel that’s twisty and heartrending in equal measure, never allowing you to feel just one thing in response to each plot development. When Sharpe realizes she’s fallen in love with her research subject and attempts to convince him of a shared past, it’s troubling, but also understandable. The moral and ethical issues aren’t forgotten, but of course a caretaker will bond with her patient, of course this well-spoken and handsome man (whose brain keeps him forever old-fashioned in terms of chivalry) will be appealing to a woman with little life outside her work. Normal consent is not possible here, but after years of study, Sharpe does have a history with him, and from a purely scientific standpoint, the deception is an experiment that is genuinely intriguing.
Morality and identity are Oates’ two primary themes, and the book reveals how much both are tied to memory. Are Sharpe’s lies abusive when they seem to make Hoopes happy and he’ll forget them in a minute anyway? Is his happiness genuine, or is he just picking up on social cues? Sharpe insists his emotional instincts toward her are evolving even if he can’t remember the origin of his feelings, but on how many levels is he stuck on a clinical square one? Ominous signs grow that the pre-amnesiac Hoopes was a violent man, perhaps even a killer. With his brain rebooted, do those tendencies remain? Sharpe furiously scribbles into her notebook, “How do we know who we were, if we don’t know who we are? How do we know who we are, if we don’t know who we were?”
There are obvious parallels to Alzheimer’s, except the issues here are far thornier. This street is defiantly one-way; Sharpe’s feelings grow as she confides in Hoopes—amnesia makes a good listener—but while this feeling of connection “is inextricably part of her memory of him, it is not part of his memory for her.” His brain forever “resembles a colander through which water sifts continually and never accumulates.” There’s a dark undercurrent of humor that flows from the logic of the situation (Hoopes believes himself 37 in perpetuity; Sharpe first frets that he will find her too young, then too old), and an undertow of suspense and dread as moments of savagery arise seemingly out of nowhere. It’s not often that an ending can be this heartbreaking and this icky.
By this stage of her career, Oates understands character and structure in her very bones, and here she builds her prose around the qualities of memory loss. Important characters appear without being introduced; like Hoopes, we are perpetually meeting people for the first time. Sentences are repeated several times in succession, as though the narrator notices a detail, forgets it, and then points it out again. Time proves slippery, the narrative less a river than an eddy where boats are repeatedly bashed against the same immutable facts. The path followed is emotional, not chronological. The plotting must have been rigorously planned to feel so spontaneous.
Though they’re not similar otherwise, Shadow recalls Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, which also contrasted its heroine’s emotional confusion against her mastery of the brain’s physiology. Sharpe knows full well that Hoopes’ memory and her feelings are nothing more than chemistry and electrical signals moving through organic matter, but that doesn’t mean she’s able to change them. (The science described here is well-researched and seems credible enough, while Hoopes’ condition is consistent—not the kind of convenient ailment that’s malleable to the needs of the narrative.)
The Man Without A Shadow is the kind of work that can inspire endless analysis and discussion, because the question it probes is really at the heart of the human experience: who are we, really? It is said you never really know another person, and this is doubly true if the other person is literally unable to know himself. Many times Sharpe is caught off guard by how stubbornly insistent Hoopes’ condition remains, her emotions easily trumping her scientific mind. Oates is canny and devastating in how she unveils a universal experience from the unique dynamic of her leads. For all her intelligence, Sharpe finds herself living the ultimate expression of a school-aged crush: “He doesn’t even know I exist!” And then no matter what she does to remind him, he forgets.