The Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates, 2016 ; HarperCollins.

All of my life I have been a fan of Joyce Carol Oates, and I have read nearly all of her novels.  The Man Without a Shadow, number 42 , is just as impressive and as well written as the previous 41.

The novel’s concern is Elihi Hoopes, a 37-year-old man who after suffering through  encephalitis is rendered an amnesiac and is stuck forever in a present 70 second loop; in other words, after 70 seconds he forgets everything he learned; he can dredge up memories before his illness, but after, he is unable to form any new ones.

This novel’s idea came from the case of Henry Molaison, who was studied by scientists, for just over forty years until Henry’s death.  Apparently Henry went in for a brain operation to solve his epilepsy and emerged with 30 seconds of living in the present tense.  He could recall events and people from his past before the operation, but was unable to make new memories.

According to Wikipedia (12-2-16): “Molaison was influential not only for the knowledge he provided about memory impairment and amnesia, but also because it was thought his exact brain surgery allowed a good understanding of how particular areas of the brain may be linked to specific processes hypothesized to occur in memory formation.”

“In particular, his apparent ability to complete tasks that require recall from short-term memory and procedural memory but not long-term episodic memory suggests that recall from these memory systems may be mediated, at least in part, by different areas of the brain. Similarly, his ability to recall long-term memories that existed well before his surgery, but inability to create new long-term memories, suggests that encoding and retrieval of long-term memory information may also be mediated by distinct systems.”

Thus we have Elihu Hoopes and his researcher, Margot Sharpe, who works with Elihu every day and becomes very attached to him, in fact, she falls in love with him — even though he can’t remember who she is for more than 70 seconds.  Is this a bit of madness?  There is always madness, I think, in love and passion.  Toward the end of her career she announces to her collegues that were it not for Elihu she would have not had the career that she did have, or the life.  Her entire life becomes centered on Elihu Hoopes.

And Oates, being the writer extraordinaire that she is, delves deeply not only into the mind of the researcher, but the mind of the participant.  I think she nails Elihu’s desperation and alienation: when he feels threatened by the researchers he conceals his emotions and acts friendly and good natured even though inside he is seething.  He wants to be left alone. The scientists treat him like a bit of data and forget that before them is a living being with strong emotions.  How easy it is to trivialize and dehumanize the participants in a research study.  Some scientists will go to just about any means to obtain essential data – it can mean their career; to those, however, with illnesses this data can mean a difference in their life especially if such studies give scientists a better picture of how the mind functions and from that we can develop new strategies and better treatments.