Jonathan Nolan's dark psychological thriller Memento Mori (and the 2000 feature adaptation his brother Christopher directed) had enormous fun with the condition known as anterograde amnesia, whereby the sufferer is unable to form new memories. Who could forget Guy Pearce tattooing his body and eyeballing every acquaintance for a glimmer of familiarity as he hunted his wife's killer.
Joyce Carol Oates is similarly pondering the art of finding the mind's construction in the face with her own noirish tale of a scientist studying a man with the memory of a goldfish. However, in this umpteenth novel from the much lauded writer and academic, the 77-year-old explores if love can eke out an existence when two people grow old together but must be re-introduced to one another at every encounter.
Oates' central protagonist bares antihero ingredients, the kind that bring layers of intrigue to a tale largely set in a research institute. Margot Sharpe is a young scientist in the mid-1960s when we are introduced to her. Working under a celebrated neuropsychology professor, she is assigned to study one Elihu Hoopes, an old-money Philadelphia heir whose hippocampus was damaged by a particularly nasty dose of encephalitis.
"Eli" - or "E.H." as he is often referred to throughout the saga, rather coldly - is charming, vulnerable, handsome and self-effacing with Margot. Things learned before the brain damage provide a fund of cultured general knowledge but something sits in the back of his memory that is shrouded. His drawings depict images of a dead girl floating in a lake, and certain lines of questioning arouse Eli's temper chillingly.
Over years and countless batteries of tests, Margot's rigorous scientific sensibilities are invaded with emotion. Familiarity turns to protectiveness, which gives way to affection and eventually obsessive love. She is a lonely character who "has had very few male friends who might have been lovers", and finds herself ignoring ethics and "appropriating" Eli through touch and marital roleplay when they are alone. And yet every time they meet, she is a stranger to him. Naturally, the slightest deviations in his mannerisms or responses consume her over their decades together.
The mysteries lurking in Eli's subconscious become more pronounced as Margot delves deeper into his life and comes to know the relatives and companions of his pre-illness years. But in many ways, The Man Without a Shadow pays closer attention to Margot's deterioration as she balances a fierce ambition to make her name through Eli's clinical trials with her "passionate, doomed and deranged" love of her charge. Don't be surprised if you wonder who is the more psychologically dysfunctional of the pair. These flecks of arid humour are another stealthy Oates prop.
Unsurprisingly, the ethics of scientific research are commented on throughout this bizarre love affair along with some startling ruminations on the nature of memory and cognition ("to the amnesiac there is something about the future that is unthinkable - inconceivable"). Oates, a professor of humanities at Princeton University, is distilling rigorous research into the form of fiction in fine style.
The real masterstroke here though is a palpable feeling of the ground shifting beneath you as perspective toggles between Margot and Eli, outwardly and within. Oates's prose is compact, refined, spare and full of muzzy-headed suspense as she observes like a scientist herself. You'll be hit by creeping sensations of déjà vu, like a record skipping before a crescendo while Margot and Eli float "in the present tense… without a shadow". This is down to a harmony between language, pace and story that is arresting and all, you feel, entirely Oates' own.