From New York Times bestseller and National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates, a taut and fascinating novel that examines the mysteries of human memory and personality as they are bound up with the most mysterious phenomenon of all—love.
In 1965, a young research scientist named Margot Sharpe is introduced to Elihu Hoopes, an attractive, charismatic amnesiac whose short-term memory has been devastated by a brief illness.
Charming, mysterious, and deeply lonely, Eli is tortured by his condition. Trapped eternally in the present moment, he is also haunted by a fragmented memory from his childhood: the disturbing image of an unknown girl’s body, floating under the surface of a lake.
Inspired and moved by her exceptional patient, Margot dedicates her professional life to him and, in so doing, establishes for herself an exceptional career in the rapidly expanding field of neuroscience.
But where is the line between scientific endeavor and personal obsession? And how to interpret the wishes of a person who is trapped outside time?
Atmospheric and unsettling, The Man Without a Shadow is a poignant exploration of loneliness, ethics, passion, aging, and memory—intricately, ambitiously structured and made both vivid and unnerving by Oates’s eye for detail and her searing insight into the human psyche.
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.
He is standing on a plank bridge in a low-lying marshy place with his feet just slightly apart and firmly on his heels to brace himself against a sudden gust of wind.
He is standing on a plank bridge in this place that is new to him and wondrous in beauty. He knows he must brace himself, he grips the railing with both hands, tight.
In this place new to him and wondrous in beauty yet he is fearful of turning to see, in the shallow stream flowing beneath the bridge, behind his back, the drowned girl.
. . . naked, about eleven years old, a child. Eyes open and sightless, shimmering in water. Rippling-water, that makes it seem that the girl’s face is shuddering. Her slender white body, long white tremulous legs and bare feet. Splotches of sunshine, “water-skaters” magnified in shadow on the girl’s face.
She will confide in no one: “On his deathbed, he didn’t recognize me.”
She will confide in no one: “On his deathbed, he didn’t recognize me but he spoke eagerly to me as he’d always done, as if I were the one bringing him hope—’Hel-lo‘”
Bravely and very publicly she will acknowledge—He is my life. Without E.H., my life would have been to no purpose.
All that I have achieved as a scientist, the reason you have summoned me here to honor me this evening, is a consequence of E.H. in my life.
I am speaking the frankest truth as a scientist and as a woman.
The annihilation is not the terror.
The journey is the terror.
Among the numerous valuable books and articles which have been useful in the preparation of this novel the most significant is Suzanne Corkin’s Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesiac Patient, H.M. (2013). Also consulted were materials by Brenda Milner, Larry Squire, and Nicholas Turk-Browne.
Thanks also to Clare Tascio for reading this manuscript with particular thoroughness as Hertog Research Fellow at Hunter College, and thanks as well to Greg Johnson for his continued and cherished friendship, sharp eye and ear, and impeccable literary judgment.
And I am grateful as always to my “first reader”—my neuroscientist-husband Charlie Gross—whose close scrutiny of this novel from start to finish, and whose enthusiasm, support, and sympathy throughout, have been inestimable.
Catherine LaSota, “The Terms of the Experiment: An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates,” Electric Literature, January 22, 2016
CL: You’ve written so much over several decades. Has your own practice of writing or your own approach to writing changed in this time?
JCO: Oh, yes I think very much. When I first began writing, my first several books, I narrated by a literary voice. I basically narrated. But my more recent novels, maybe recent like the past ten or even twenty years, are more mediated voices. The characters are speaking more. The characters’ vocabularies and idiomatic ways of speech are the style of the novel, whereas when I started writing it was more like a literary style that was narrated. Now I have more people talking, more characters. The Man Without a Shadow is very much in the voice of Margot, and, to some extent, Eli’s voice. There’s no place in the novel where Joyce Carol Oates starts talking about these people. Basically they are presenting themselves through their memories and dialogue.
I had a very interesting time with the experiments in the book because they are all based on real experiments. Some of them are famous experiments.
Lizzie Crocker, “How the Science of Memory Seduced Joyce Carol Oates,” The Daily Beast, January 19, 2016
Oates said she was intrigued by the way that scientists view the world and their experiments “as the consequence of causes and events, whereas writers and artists are more focused on the sensuousness of the world and the way things look.”
“Margot is a conceptual person, so when she meets E.H., she views him as a kind of phenomenon,” she said. “I’ve never really looked at someone like that until I wrote this novel.”
She went on: “That [Margot] and her team are already thinking about slicing his brain up when he dies is chilling to me. And yet if you’re a scientist, that’s the way that you think. Even when Margot is holding E.H.’s hand and is in love with him, her mind is working on some great new article she’s going to write about the experiment.”
Donna Seaman, Booklist, December 15, 2015
Masterful in her articulation of distressed psyches and intimate predator-prey relationships, Oates is in her element in the world of neuroscience, drawing on ardent research and her gothic imagination and deploying her eerie, incantatory style to dramatize the torment of mental impairment—Eli’s amnesia and Margo’s monomania—as well as the wonder and ruthlessness of science.
Alice LaPlante, Washington Post, January 11, 2016
One of the extraordinary aspects of this novel is watching the simultaneous ascendancy of Margot into the stratosphere of the neuroscience community — her groundbreaking work with Elihu honored and her scientific rigor emulated and admired — and her descent into what can only be called a kind of madness. … There are mysteries within mysteries in this book, beautifully rendered. Who is the dead girl lying in a stream, her body sparkling, who appears in the sketches Elihu continually draws? How much does Elihu retain — if not consciously, then unconsciously — from his daily slate of mind-numbingly tedious and sometimes cruel memory tests? Oates provides no easy answers. The book’s ending, also, is heart-rending.
Eric K. Anderson, Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies, 2016
The Man Without a Shadow is a triumphantly successful novel that makes original connections between science’s mission to comprehend the elusive mechanics of the mind and the humanities’ exploration of the manifestations of love.
Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Library Journal, January 7, 2016
Oates’s narrative style ingeniously reflects the subject matter. The prose is clinical, keeping us at a somewhat emotional distance, as befits a scientific study. Similarly, the virtual erasing of Eli’s short-term memory on a constant basis means a lot of repetition. Nevertheless, the reader is drawn in as Margot weaves her way into Eli’s subconscious, and the impossible love story is ultimately heartbreaking.
Ryan Vlastelica, A.V. Club, January 18, 2016
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.
Steve Nathans-Kelly, Paste, January 19, 2016
In these forays into a seemingly unknowable mind, Oates provides the best examples of her trademark “psychological realism”: exploring questions that history and science can ask, but only fiction can answer.
Hilary White, Independent.ie, January 31, 2016
Oates’s prose is compact, refined, spare and full of muzzy-headed suspense as she observes like a scientist herself. You’ll be hit by creeping sensations of déjà vu, like a record skipping before a crescendo while Margot and Eli float “in the present tense… without a shadow”. This is down to a harmony between language, pace and story that is arresting and all, you feel, entirely Oates’ own.
Jeff Robson, Independent, February 15, 2016
But the sense of the characters being trapped in an isolated, hermetic environment adds to the novel’s cumulative power, as Margot realises that she too is living perpetually in the moment and Eli finds his “star subject” status waning, as old age brings only more suffering and uncertainty. A moving climax proves that, unlike her protagonists, Oates’ talents and perceptions remain unimpaired.
Lucy Scholes, The Guardian, February 21, 2016
A novel that demands the most literal interpretation of the definition “psychological thriller”, The Man Without a Shadow showcases Oates’s grasp of the complexities of the human psyche via an enticing combination of the ambiguity of Memento and the poignant realism of Awakenings.
Ann Jurecic, Daniel Marchalik, The Lancet, October 15-21, 2016, p. 1874
By shifting their attention to the instability of functional memory, Oates and Dittrich challenge readers to see that HM’s story offers an opportunity to reflect critically on the heroic narratives medicine tells the world and the stories each of us constructs about our selves and our integrity.
Image: “DSCF2306” by chicabrandita: Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.