Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific writer, author of 41 novels from 1964 through 2015. I rarely read novels, so it would have been very unlikely that I’d pull her book off the shelf at Booktowne in Manasquan while my wife was having her nails done at Ceci. But Miriam had advised that she was all caught up on novels from her favorite authors, and looking to explore some new writers or genres. That is how I can to sit on my favorite reading chair at Booktowne with Joyce Carol Oates’ 42nd novel in my lap, hand skimming to see if this was something that Miriam’s eyes might find appealing.
Although Miriam decided the book was probably not her cup of tea, I found it to be mesmerizing. I couldn’t put it down and didn’t, until it was time to pick Miriam up at Ceci. Or more accurately I did put the book down, but on the counter only long enough for the young woman to run my credit card so that I could dash off and finish it.
Ms. Oates acknowledges that The Man Without A Shadow is modeled to a great extent on Suzanne Corkin’s book about the unforgettable life of the amnesiac patient Henry Molaison, known during his lifetime as H.M. J.C.O. does a masterful job of casting her fictional amnesiac, Elihu Hoopes, or E.H., as a similarly amnesic individual trapped in the perpetual present. On page 16 she likens him to a man wandering in circles in a twilit woods – a man without a shadow.
J.C.O. is a celebrated writer who says in the following interview (at the 2:40 mark) that “what’s nice about being an artist is that I don’t think anybody really cares about the process; they only care about the final work”.
I suppose then I’m an exception to the rule. After finishing the book, I was intrigued by what influenced J.C.O. to probe the topic of neuroscience research in such detail. Here I’ll make a very long story short, one that she began to tell in an epigraph to A Widow’s Story detailing her first husband’s unexpected death from pneumonia in 2008. Following six months of near suicidal thought, she met and subsequently married the neuroscientist Charles Gross. The Man Without A Shadow is dedicated “To My Husband, Charlie Gross, My First Reader”. I’ve been a big fan of Charlie’s since reading his work: Brain, Vision, Memory – Tales in the History of Neuroscience. Charlie’s influence, if not imprimatur, is all over this book — from the subject’s summers on Lake George in the Adironacks (where he spent summers as a young boy) to the sometimes seamy and steamy politics of mentors, post-docs and research labs.
As soon as I finished the book I emailed my favorite neuroscientist and said: Not prone to reading novels, I made an exception for Joyce Carol Oates’ latest, as it looked enticing on a skim. My gamble was rewarded! And … I’ll bet you’d thoroughly enjoy it.
If you have any interest in the cognitive neurosciences, and its human backstories, you too will enjoy J.C.O.’s latest novel. I can say that beyond a shadow of a doubt.