Book Review for “The Man Without a Shadow” by Joyce Carol Oates
Imagine having such sudden memory loss that anything that happens to you after that incident can only be retained by your brain for just over one minute, and then it is forgotten? When Elihu Hoopes gets encephalitis at the age of 37, it effects the memory center of his brain, and causes this condition. According to Goodreads: “In 1965, neuroscientist Margot Sharpe meets Elihu Hoopes: the “man without a shadow,” who will be known, in time, as the most-studied and most famous amnesiac in history. A vicious infection has clouded anything beyond the last seventy seconds just beyond the fog of memory. Over the course of thirty years, the two embark on mirrored journeys of self-discovery: Margot, enthralled by her charming, mysterious, and deeply lonely patient, as well as her officious supervisor, attempts to unlock Eli’s shuttered memories of a childhood trauma without losing her own sense of self in the process.”
You know what this book reminded me of? Anyone remember that silly movie with Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler called “50 First Dates”? The idea is that every morning, Drew’s character wakes up not remembering anything that happened to her the day before. In fact, the basis for that stupid movie is also the basis of this book, and yes, encephalitis is one cause of what they call Anterograde Amnesia. Now, obviously, this novel isn’t a comedy, but from what I can see, both the creators of that film and Oates did their research quite well (for the most part). Of course, that’s neither here nor there.
I’d like to start by saying that I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never read anything by Oates before, which is why I bought this book when I saw it at Foyles in London. However, I’m wondering if this should have been the first of her books for me to read. Don’t get me wrong, it was obvious to me from the onset of reading this that Oates writes absolutely beautifully, creating a rich atmosphere with her words. Her style is totally something to be admired and appreciated, especially by someone like me, someone who thoroughly enjoys the poetic quality of well written prose. I would go so far as to say that Oates uses language like an artist uses paints and brush strokes, sometimes boldly but mostly with a delicacy that allows us to see not just the overall effect, but also the emotions behind the words. Furthermore, the descriptive passages were fully vivid to my imagination, which is always a very good thing.
However, there was quite a lot here that rubbed me a bit the wrong way. For example, it was slightly annoying that almost every time Oates referred to her protagonist, she used her full name – Margot Sharpe. That type of thing felt obsessive to me, if not superfluous – yes, we get it, she has a first and last name. Mind you, I get that Oates might have had a point in doing that, but I’m unsure what that could have been. This, of course, contrasted with how half of the time Margot’s subject, Elihu Hoopes, was referred to as only E.H. This didn’t bother me, since it was obvious that when Margot was thinking of him as her object of study, he needed to be anonymous, while when she was with him as an individual, outside of work, he was Elihu or even Eli.
Now, from what I gather, this wasn’t one of Oates’ longest novels. In fact, at just under 400 pages, it is actually about average to medium-long in length. However, I got the distinct impression that huge swaths of this novel could have been cut without much problem, which would have made it a much more concise and tighter narrative, instead of one that felt like it just went on and on. Again, I do understand why all of the many experiments and tests that the lab puts E.H. through were included, but I’m sure at least half of them could have been discarded in the editing heap with the same effect. Of course, this does make all the research done on this poor man seem very cruel, which I guess was the point. Even so, that didn’t make me like what they were doing any better. I wonder if Oates was trying to say that sometimes, if there are no real ends, then the means aren’t at all justified. Especially if the only ends are the promotion of someone’s career, which doesn’t really do all that much for humanity.
You might think that I had a moral problem with the premise of this book, but I don’t think that’s what really bothered me here. It was more that I felt with all the details included, I almost felt like Oates was examining and testing me as a reader, and that made me feel uncomfortable. This is a real shame because I adored Oates writing. That’s why I think this is probably a book that will be loved by die-hard Oates fans, but if you haven’t read her before, I don’t think you should start with this one. For all this, I’ll give it three and a half stars, although I’m probably an outlier in this lower rating.
“The Man Without a Shadow” by Joyce Carol Oates was released in 2016, and is available (affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, new or used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary) and Alibris, as well as from Bookshop.org or an IndieBound store near you.