Identity crash

Alan Lightman
Pantheon Books

21st-century society can drive a rational person nuts. The things we demand of our bodies and minds—work harder, exercise more, assimilate better—can be too much for most of us. So what happens while we wait for the sudden snap at the end of our rope? Some bow out, consciously step off the wire wheel, quit competing for one more crumb of cheese.

There are those, however, whose competitive or conformist proclivities won’t allow them to abandon the rat race. When these types finally hit the wall, their physical and emotional sinews snap, leaving only a crumpled and undulating mass at the base of the unmarred barrier.

Bill Chalmers is lead road kill in Alan Lightman’s new novel The Diagnosis. He’s on the way to his job at Plymouth Limited ("maximum information in the minimum time") when he suffers one of those now-why-did-I-come-into-this-room moments. His internal hard drive crashes, and he can’t remember who he is, where he’s going or why he wants to go there. It’s hours before he regains his identity.

That’s when things begin to go downhill.

His hands start to go numb and, from a metaphoric standpoint, he begins to lose touch. The paralysis is progressive, and he eventually ends up jobless, wheelchair-bound and with no control over his environment, while he’s shuttled from doctor to exploitative doctor. The 40-year-old Chalmers never receives a diagnosis, but readers don’t have any trouble figuring out that the reason no physiological cause for the illness can be found is because Chalmers himself is an existential symptom of a sick society. The doctors can’t find anything, because they’re looking in the wrong place.

The more subtle cause of Chalmers’ discomfort was that he wasn’t all that dialed-in to begin with. His wife was having an affair; he could only communicate well with his son via e-mail. Maybe the most rational thing he could do was to log off the merry-go-round.

Now, author Lightman’s a smart fellow. He’s a professor in humanities and a lecturer in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received accolade upon accolade for his earlier novel, Einstein’s Dreams. The Diagnosis was on the short list for last year’s National Book Award.

That’s why I don’t feel too bad when I say there are things about this novel that I just don’t get. Why, for example, does Lightman intertwine the story of Socrates’ execution and his persecutor, Anytus, into Chalmers’ story (and why does Lightman spell the name as “Sokrates")? Does Socrates represent Chalmers? From the description of the great philosopher’s death, the gradual paralysis caused by his hemlock highball, I can only guess that this was Lightman’s intention.

I didn’t buy it. Socrates was the best and the brightest Athens had to offer. Chalmers was just some schmuck who couldn’t handle middle management.

Still, I didn’t have any trouble sympathizing with Chalmers. In a novel such as this, there’s a big difference between feeling no connection to a character because the writing is bad, and feeling disconnected from a character because the writing is very good. Lightman’s work falls into the latter category. He’s a great storyteller, and the book is captivating and easy to read—even the Robert M. Pirsig-esque bits with Socrates.

In the end, and after it’s apparently too late, Lightman gives Chalmers some redemption. He reconnects with his son in a meaningful way. His wife makes an emotional reconnection with him as they plan for Chalmers’ internment at a residential hospital. I suppose Lightman had to have a somewhat happy ending to help the book sell.

The Diagnosis fits under the cautionary-tale umbrella. Chalmers only lost his connections because they were so tenuous in the first place. People who have the guts to throw the rat race and find something profound to do with their lives won’t fall prey to the creeping malaise that took Chalmers. Sometimes, the end of the rope is a lifeline.