The Man Without a Shadow is by the extremely prolific Joyce Carol Oates. It is an extraordinary novel about an amnesiac man who can only create memories for about 70 seconds, and the people who study him. Based loosely on the famous real-life patient known as H.M, Elihu Hoopes wakes from a fever in his 37th year unable to form and retain new memories. Margot Sharpe meets him in 1965 when she begins the experiments into memory deficits that will make her career. Oates cleverly and quite subtly investigates what life a person has who is always in the present, and how the people around such a person have to respond. Margot responds by not just crossing ethical lines between researcher and subject but galloping merrily off over the horizon, as she becomes obsessed with Elihu and hopes that somewhere, he remembers her.
I enjoyed Oates’ cool observations of academic triumphs and treacheries, and the way women scientists had to scrabble, not too long ago, to do their work and then to claim it. Oates explores how Elihu deals with day-to-day interactions, always polite, smiling, ingratiating, always trying to work out who is who and what dangers lurk in the brave new worlds he encounters multiple times every day.
It is quite an uncomfortable book, Elihu’s misfortune is hard to comprehend and his utter solitude in the world becomes more and more obvious. Margot is fascinating if a little unlikeable which is sort of how people respond to her in the book. There are questions about how Elihu is able to consent to take part in the constant tests and experiments he is part of, and whether he is being exploited, as there is no hope of ameliorating let alone curing his condition – he is just very very useful. Like H.M was – we owe him a huge debt.