THE MAN WITHOUT A SHADOW by Joyce Carol Oates: A Review

Maybe it was because I saw Joyce Carol Oates read from a work in progress once that I have had a fascination with her books since graduate school back in the mid-eighties, but whatever the reason, I have read many of her books and stories. With such a prolific author as Oates, that’s quite a few books! This one, a novel, as the blurb on the back cover proclaims, is “taut and fascinating.” It deals with the mysteries of the human mind and the human personality. It is an unusual, perhaps unique love story.

The novel is set between 1965 and 1996, all years in which I was an adult, so I had a perspective of living through the years the story was set in. To me, one of the most interesting facets of the novel was its attempt to show personal obsession as a reality. Themes such as loneliness, ethics, passion, aging and memory are all present in this page-turning novel. As in most of Oates’ novels, it contains precise, detailed writing and definitely gives insights into the human psyche.

Margot Sharpe, one of the two main characters, has devoted her professional life to Eli Hoopes, an attractive amnesiac whose short term memory is gone due to a brain illness (infection). He is “trapped eternally in the present moment,” haunted by a vague childhood memory, an image of a girl child, drowned and floating in the water under a bridge on which he is standing. This image dredges up feelings of dread, anxiety, and guilt. Because of her association with Eli, Margot goes on to an exceptional career as a neuroscientist and wins awards and acclaim within her profession.

The relationship of the two main characters is complex, disconcerting, and definitely unethical. Out of necessity it is a secret relationship. The first time Eli meets Margot and she introduces herself, his response is an interested, “Hel-lo.” Because he does not remember her from encounter to encounter, this is repeated over and over throughout the course of the novel right up to his dying moments.  It is a fascinating subject/theme and a fascinating approach to presenting the story/novel.