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This blog makes liberal use of AB's journals, letters, travel notes, and other sources.

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Monday, 21 March 2016

Reefs of memory

Image result for oates shadow manA couple of weeks ago I read a review of Joyce Carol Oates' novel "The Man Without a Shadow" and determined to read it when the opportunity arose. How pleased I was then to find a copy on the shelf at my local library, and yesterday I finished the book, exhilarated and exhausted. It felt as if I had been out swimming in the sea, just off shore, and had been caught up by an unexpectedly strong wave, tossing me about and threatening to drown me, and then cast onto the beach to lie almost extinguished on the sand. My heart was beating more rapidly than usual, I was flushed and slightly breathless. I had to go out for a walk in the night air to calm down. This is a timely reminder of why fiction is so much more 'real', and better, than real life.

The novel tells of the relationship, over a period of thirty years, between two people, Margot Sharpe and Elihu Hoopes. Eli has suffered an extreme infection which has damaged his brain resulting in an inability to remember anything new for more than seventy seconds. He is an intelligent man of middle years and from a privileged background at the start of the novel, with a good memory pre-trauma. Margot is a psychology student in her early twenties who makes Eli her life's work, pursuing a successful career in neuro-psychology and becoming increasingly involved emotionally with her amnesiac subject. There is a sub-plot involving an apparent mystery from Eli's boyhood which leavens the mixture.

Eli is a man almost permanently in a state of panic, because he has no idea where he is or why he is there. He struggles, mostly successfully, to hide his anxiety behind a genial, old-fashioned facade. As a boy it turns out that he was bullied and humiliated, but became successful by dint of his intelligence and determination, though remaining a rather fragile personality. We learn little of Margot's background except that she was glad to escape from it. She is an odd mixture of strong will and determination professionally overlying emotional insecurity and vulnerability.

There is an episodic structure to the novel, usually in the third person but sometimes seeming to be a first person stream of thought from either Eli or Margot. It is not clear who the narrator is. There are several references to Margot intending to write/having written a book called "The Biology of Memory" giving a personal account of her relationship with Eli to set alongside the scientific papers she has published. Are we in fact reading from that book? If so, how reliable a narrator is Margot? For example we are told that a sexual relationship develops between Margot and Eli, but is this credible or a figment of Margot's wishful thinking? The way the book is structured, to my mind, helpfully conveys something of the confusion felt by the amnesiac.

Do I feel I know more about memory as a result of reading this book? No. But it has caused me to reflect on the nature not just of memory itself but its role in present experience. Many issues are raised by Oates: the nature of consent, confidentiality, the morality of experimentation, professional standards and the exploitation of the weak by those who have power. Margot herself is exploited professionally, emotionally and sexually by her mentor, and she in turn exploits Eli, though less cynically.

This is an unconventional book, not a thriller but for me as gripping as a thriller, not a romance or a drama. I think it unique.

1 comment:

  1. How delightful! I don't know a soul who has ever read Oates, nor have I. Thank you.