I am more or less live-blogging this one a little bit, so my feelings on it might change as I go.
I do not dislike this novel, and in fact, in some ways I think it’s perfectly good.
The story is about a research neuro-physiologist named Margot Sharp who spends her lengthy career working with an amnesiac named Elihu Hoopes. It is repeatedly insisted throughout the novel that she is a doctor, in the sense of a scientist, but not a doctor, in the sense of a physician. This distinction is important for the novel because one is the observer of a subject, while the other is the healer of maladies. The novel is told in ways that challenge narrative form–repetition of day to day occurrences, multiple points of perspective (though not different narrators…all third person, but with different kinds of limitedness), and a variety of extra-text additions like reports, notes on a conference and the like. And so with most any book that challenges narrative structure in this way, I begin with two question: how does it function and what purpose does it serve? While for this one, the functioning can challenge the patience of a reader, but shouldn’t really challenge the intelligence. But the second question, the answer of which I am not sure most books could produce a satisfactory one, works very well for this book.
Elihu Hoopes’s kind of amnesia disallows him to remember new information but still recall the events previous to his illness (a brain fever), and so the result is that he is an intelligent, affable man stuck in his 37th year. The tests that he subjects himself to are frustrating exercises, but not impossible or cruel ones. The relationship, though, between Margot and Eli becomes more and more complicated, and like many relationships between patient and doctor, researcher and subject, teacher and student, the shared space and the shared time and intimacy begins to blur boundaries and where there should be limits and breaks in place, there just aren’t.
Not all predatory relationships work because the predator acts like a predator. And especially in cases where those lines (even clearly drawn) are not so culturally drawn that we automatically understand them. So if you someone harboring feelings for their therapist…yes, there are lines drawn…but those feelings also make sense. And when someone crosses those lines, it’s a huge issue, but it doesn’t start at the moment of first meeting, leveling a target, and moving in.
So this book tries to understand how those lines and the repetitions of intimacy, day in and day out, become blurred. The novel then also reflects the repetitive pattern of these interactions, and the nature of Elihu’s illness, who begins anew every day and has to replicate the day to day activities to attempt normality.
I am not sure I can recommend this one. It worked for me…it’s fraught…and the characters are amiable and presented as likable, but they are not good people (one, not entirely, and one, not at all). So this is a really divisive one, to be sure.