Early in a literary career that has now spanned half a century, nearly 50 novels, and hundreds of short stories, Joyce Carol Oates identified herself as a “psychological realist.” Pegging the “human psyche… as the center of all experience of reality,” Oates declared that a plausibly rendered fictional world that derives its power from “a skillful evocation of time and place” can reveal deeper truths about our own world than strictly factual reportage.
Much as Oates’ work delves into the human psyche, it also reveals the author’s fascination with the theory and practice of psychology itself. At roughly the same time she was coining the phrase “psychological realism,” Oates engaged in a striking correspondence with clinical psychoanalyst and author Dale Boesky that was published in 1975 in the International Review of Psychoanalysis. In response to a question regarding parallels between the methodology of psychoanalysts and novelists, Oates wrote, “I do feel, instinctively, that psychiatrists and psychoanalysts and, to a lesser extent, medical doctors themselves, work in areas extremely dangerous to their own well-being; as a novelist I sometimes suffer along with my own characters, in my attempt to honor their emotional miseries, but I do know, always, that they are characters in a work of art… however representative of real life their agonies are. Yet the ‘healer’ knows very well that his patients are real, quite real.”
Oates’ new book, The Man Without a Shadow, draws heavily on the thoroughly intertwined lives of a doctor and patient who were themselves quite real: MIT neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin and amnesiac Henry Molaison. Corkin spent 40-plus years studying Molaison’s extraordinary condition, in which he lived in a permanent present of 30-second cycles, around which he was unable to make new memories. Corkin’s experiments with Molaison—who proved an ever-willing and cooperative subject—yielded some of the most remarkable discoveries in modern neuroscience; she published extensively on her findings, identifying Molaison only as “H.M.” until his death in 2008. Corkin’s 2013 memoir, Permanent Present Tense, largely forms the basis of The Man Without a Shadow.
Some of the ethical questions that swirled around Permanent Present Tense and the widely known efforts of the “H.M.” research team throughout its decades of operation included speculation about the intimacy of the researchers’ relationship with “H.M.” and the potential for exploitation in the unrelenting study of a subject without any prospect of getting better. Corkin touches on these more personal issues in the moving epilogue of Permanent Present Tense; Oates places them at the heart of The Man Without a Shadow. Oates also plumbs the depths of what impels a scientist to devote not just her career but the better part of her life to a subject who forgets her identity on a minute-to-minute basis, and what that life makes of the person who chooses it. Oates also explores the unfathomable depths of a permanently damaged and predominantly silenced mind that can be fruitfully dissected but never really understood.
Oates introduces neuroscientist Margot Sharpe in 1965 as an ambitious and feverishly dedicated graduate student and new addition to the memory laboratory of world-renowned neuropsychologist Milton Ferris. There she encounters Elihu Hoopes, stockbroker, visual artist, civil rights activist, scion of an eminent Philadelphia family, and permanent amnesiac following a bout with encephalitis. As the increasingly famous test case “E.H.,” Hoopes’ genteel manner and generous disposition make him a wonderfully compliant subject, even though he shows little understanding of the project at hand—and any understanding he gains dissipates almost immediately due to his inability to form new memories and his minute-to-minute mental reset.
The Man Without a Shadow reads a bit like a sequential collection of clinical case notes, though it’s presented as a straightforward narrative. Oates has given herself two daunting challenges: to build a narrative arc around a 30-year relationship involving one person whose interior life has no arc; and to create interesting reading from a life that is mind-numbingly repetitive and the progress of a mind that makes only infinitesimal progress, and is numbed at precisely set intervals.
The book gains both intrigue and psychological depth from Margot’s inner struggles. Early on, she grapples with the gender politics of the lab and hers (and other graduate students’) exploitation at the hands of the fame-hoarding senior researcher Milton Ferris. But her biggest problem is her doomed relationship with Elihu Hoopes, where—objectivity, ethics, good sense and self-preservation be damned—lifelong dedication to the research becomes all-consuming dedication to the man. Oates defines Margot’s dilemma succinctly in the opening lines of the book: “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.”
Oates’s narrative inhabits Margot’s interior life for most of the book, and particularly in the book’s protracted focus on the day-to-day work in the lab and its near-case notes nature, the story drags a bit in its first half through repetitiveness that’s probably a bit too authentic to methodical science to make for scintillating reading.
Surprisingly, The Man Without a Shadow really picks up steam when Oates goes inside the damaged mind of Elihu Hoopes, which in her rendering is a fascinating place. Like the real-life Henry Molaison, Eli retains much of the intellectual vitality and acute perceptiveness of what was clearly an exceptionally fine mind before the connections that make new memories were severed.
In these chapters we see beyond Eli’s polite, jovial and gently ironic veneer into a world of repressed frustration, distrust and paranoia, lust and deeply disturbing, fractured memories of an episode from his childhood. 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.
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.