Oates explores the lives of an amnesiac and the neuroscientist who studies and adores him.
Elihu "Eli" Hoopes, who will be forever known in the annals of science as E.H., loses his short-term memory as a consequence of encephalitis at age 37. The scion of a prominent Philadelphia family, this would-be leftist–turned-stockbroker contracted the fever at the Hoopes’ lodge on Lake George. Referred in 1965 to psychologists at the University Neurological Institute, he becomes, in effect, a career guinea pig, subjected daily to various tests by the illustrious Dr. Milton Ferris and his staff, which includes 24-year-old graduate student Margot Sharpe. However avidly he takes notes and makes sketches, Eli can't retain memories of anyone he meets. He greets everyone as if for the first time, with an affable “hel-lo.” Where most of his family is concerned, the forgetting is mutual—they have abandoned him to the care of an aunt. Eli ruminates obsessively about his past since his memories of the years before 1965 are intact. Many of his charcoal drawings depict the figure of a drowned girl, around 11 years old, beneath the surface of a stream near Lake George. Eli’s italicized thoughts about this girl introduce a murder mystery: his cousin Gretchen disappeared one summer, and the Hoopeses hushed it up. Is Eli the killer? As Margot ages and advances in academia, her private life becomes increasingly fraught—she has an affair with Ferris, a married womanizer, and allows him to pillage her ideas but refuses to expose him—and then she begins an affair with Eli. Oates excels at creating spooky, off-kilter atmospherics, less so at funneling scientific data onto the page in digestible chunks.
The maze of memory is an ideal setting for Oates’ trademark mixture of melodrama and pathos.