Acknowledging as a starting point that Joyce Carol Oates is never dull, never less than fascinating, and one of America’s greatest writers with one of the most fertile imaginations on earth, this maestra returns with her fascinating The Man Without a Shadow. As background, Oates was, in the past few years, widowed and remarried, and her current husband is a neuroscientist. Oates has clearly learned an immense about from him about how the brain works–or doesn’t, under certain circumstances–and it’s easy to see this novel partially as a tribute to him. And, of course, one wonders if he’s been the lucky person to be able to observe her incredible genius of a mind from his points of view as scientist, as well. I hasten to add, however, that, according to Dr. John Tew, one of America’s greatest neurosurgeons, that western neuroscience only understands how about 5% of the brain works (in conversation with me a few years ago), so that the rest of it yet remains a mystery (which I sometimes believe may yield some of its secrets in the sacred texts of India, the early kabbalistic teachings of mystical rabbis and in the decoding of the meanings of Hebrew letters, currently researched at Cal Tech, and the gnostic teachings of Christianity, and in entirely different cultures from the hyper-rationalist West.
That being said, Oates’ creation of Margot Sharpe, an ambitious young female scientist in a completely male-dominated field, finds herself as a young graduate research assistant to one of neuroscience’s great minds, and they are in a unique position to study the brain functions of “E.H.”, a man whose (great) brain suffers from amnesia caused by a high fever , so that he remembers everything up til age 37, and nothing afterwards. Sharpe becomes the favored student of the great (and eventually Nobel prize winning) Dr. Ferris. The novel will look at the difficulties of being the sole woman in a completely male field, and how Sharpe does/doesn’t cope with that reality; Sharpe’s boundaries, or lack thereof, make up the most interesting sections of the novel. How successful women in rarefied fields cope with being at the top–as in Mudwoman, another Oates’ great novel–has become an increasingly potent theme for Oates, who, herself, lives and writes in the very thin vapors of Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Studies (that’s where Einstein was). Sharpe’s scientific skills and brilliance are never in doubt, but her complete lack of any personal life is where her great mind cracks, and she falls for both her mentor and her subject–the latter, of course, becoming the core of the novel’s territory. Aware of the crossing of professional boundaries that could ruin her career, she is unable/incapable of not inventing a love affair between her and the gentlemanly, brilliant “E. H.”. Yet part of the fascination of the novel, and what adds extra dimensions of complexity, is that Sharpe does get to know and understand pieces of E.H.’s brain to which none of the others are privy, because of these crossed boundaries. When E.H.’s personal circumstances crumble–he’s been living with a rich aunt, who dies, and his siblings and cousins simply want to get rid of him so that they can grab their share of family assets–Sharpe really does rather go mad, another type of brain dysfunction/misfire, perhaps, that Oates wants us readers to understand, too. Oates never, ever leaves us with just one explanation for any human behavior.
One of the strangest part of the usually very strong woman in Oates’ novels, who have decidedly neurotic, if you will, emotional lives, is how much they remind us of Henry James’ characters like Isabel Archer–and I never dreamed I’d be comparing Henry James with Joyce Carol Oates. But Oates’ women are so often victims of circumstances, or crack under the most severe pressure, that the parallels are there. I mention these similarities because reading Oates always brings layers of fascination that the reader may not at first see, but repeated readings of her fiction makes these themes clearer. If The Man Without a Shadow isn’t Oates’ strongest fiction, it’s a great read and certainly addresses all sorts of contemporary social and gender issues, and the pleasure of reading Oates alone is worth reading this mostly strong novel.
I read this new Oates novel right after reading Amber Hunt’s Mr.Splitfoot, which, as I mentioned, takes place in Oates territory, the wrecked, ruined Upstate New York. And then, after reading Oates, I picked up a book of essays by another American mind of genius, Marilynne Robinson, who’s not only one of contemporary literature’s greatest practitioners (Gilead; Housekeeping; Lila) but has become one of our country’s leading Christian theologians. In The Givenness of Things, Essays by Marilynne Robinson, I picked up where I’d left off, an essay called “Givenness”, in which Robinson makes mincemeat of the way neuroscience pretends to understand virtually anything about how the brain works: she sees the brain within the context of the moral universe proposed by, amongst others, early American Christian writers/ministers, like Jonathan Edwards of Connecticut. When neuroscientists ‘read’ what the brain does , during an MRI scan, for example, and see what areas of the brain light up as responses to fear, pleasure, whatever, Robinson most correctly notes that these are responses to emotional stimuli, but the causes of our brain’s responses remain completely unknown, and so she urges us to see the lack of a moral order in the laboratories of neuroscientists. If, for example, we all do have a soul, neuroscientists will deny same, because it’s not something that they look for, and their current laboratory tests/thinking don’t tend to that direction. In the thousands of years of Christian theology, our emotions and mental responses were seen as part of the natural moral order of the universe, and could be explained as the moral order being, if you will, out of whack, so that our emotions parallel or mirror those universal structures and orders. (As someone with fibromyalgia, which to date doesn’t show up on medical tests, though it will eventually, most of us with said disease are , more or less, told it’s psychological, or an adjunct of depression, or other such excuses invented by a medical profession that simply hasn’t found its origins, so why not blame the patient? Until relatively recently, there were no tests, only ‘indicators’ for multiple sclerosis, until scans found lesions in the brain to explain this disease). Robinson, obviously, wouldn’t be surprised at all by any of these phenomena, and would propose that the fault lies in the science, in the desire to prove what scientists want to prove, without any guiding or larger principals as a higher purpose or overarching conceptual framework.
Reading Robinson right after Oates was an accident of my own reading, but the greatest critique of , say, Oates’ novel probably lies in the essays of Robinson, and much of the malaise of contemporary American life and culture could be traced to the same lack of a holistic view of life in Western life and culture. The often weak arguments surrounding much of contemporary art itself no doubt comes from similar lacks, and the last place, I presume , that contemporary theorists are going to look for conceptual frameworks are in the moral orders of the universe proposed by religious thinkers over the past, oh, 2016 years or so. So as great as, say, Oates’ novel is, or certainly fascinating, with its views into the secrets of the brain itself, if you read Marilynne Robinson, you’ll find yourself face to face with possible answers to questions routinely asked; perhaps one of the paradoxes of rationalist, secular thinking is its refusal to believe in some clear moral ordering of the universe. I recommend reading both Oates and Robinson and would love to hear a debate between these two contemporary geniuses.