Book of the Week: The Man Without a Shadow – Joyce Carol Oates

Often the first thing that often comes to mind one thinks of Joyce Carol Oates is her prodigious output.*

[*To recap recent history: Her memoir, The Lost Landscape, released four months ago and the last few years have brought us suspense novels (from other houses) as well as a series of literary novels: one on racism and the poisonous persistence of stereotypes (The Sacrifice), an eerie, unnerving story collection (Lovely, Dark, Deep), a powerful novel about war and PTSD (Carthage), and a turn-of-the-century historical novel about America…and vampires (The Accursed).]

For my money the truly astounding thing is not how many books she writes but how consistently good they are–and how varied her imaginative landscapes. I approach each new Oates novel wondering what rabbit she will pull out of her hat this time. The Man Without a Shadow does not disappoint. It’s a fascinating change of direction, based on the true story of Henry Molaison, the memory impaired man who was hugely influential to neurobiology for the insights he was able to provide about memory formation and amnesia.

Oates’ protagonists–Eli Hoopes and his doctor Margot Sharpe—are inspired by Molaison and his doctor, neuroscientist Brenda Milner. Oates uses their imagined 30 year relationship to explore ideas of love, memory, relationship and the limits of what we can know and understand about each other.

And lest you think Oates has left behind her almost trademark concern with secrets, obsession and suspense, Booklist notes that this novel is “charged with the excitement of a scientific thriller and can be recommended to Oates devotees and all readers seeking smart and unnerving page-turners.” It’s an impressive turn by one of our most consistently impressive American writers.

The Washington Post just put it on a list of five books it can’t wait to read this January (along with Tessa Hadley’s The Past–covered here a couple weeks ago–and Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton­, which I can’t wait to read myself!) Oates and Strout are also on EW‘s list of “11 Books You Have to Read in January.”

“Smart, cultured, and congenial, [Eli] is the ideal neuroscience research subject, and Margo, high-strung and obsessive, becomes fascinated with Eli to the point of wildly unethical fanaticism. She becomes famous for the results of the grueling experiments she puts Eli through, while he, haunted by a secret childhood tragedy, grows increasingly angry and volatile. Masterful in her articulation of distressed psyches and intimate predator-prey relationships, Oates is in her element in the world of neuroscience, drawing on ardent research and her gothic imagination and deploying her eerie, incantatory style to dramatize the torment of mental impairment––Eli’s amnesia and Margo’s monomania—as well as the wonder and ruthlessness of science. This complexly suspenseful and darkly erotic duel between a lovesick mad scientist and her beleaguered yet far from helpless subject illuminates, with strobe-light intensity, the labyrinthine mysteries of our brains and minds.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

The Man Without a Shadow (9780062416094) by Joyce Carol Oates. $27.99 hardcover. $27.99 hardcover. 1/19/16 on sale.

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