THE DIAGNOSIS by Alan Lightman


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From the author of Einstein’s Dreams (1993), a haunting if ultimately unsatisfying metafiction.

Bill Chalmers is an eager and, as far as he knows, happy participant in what was once quaintly called the rat race but now, with the infusion of information—from cell phones, computers, etc.—is called the New Economy. One morning on the way to work in downtown Boston, Chalmers literally loses himself: he suddenly has no idea where he’s going or what he does. (His business, as it’s intended to be, is a bit murky, having to do with the receipt, handling, and transmission of information, and the imputation to it of life and death qualities.) Struck by his amnesia, Chalmers is virtually naked on the floor of the subway, curled in the fetal position around his cell phone. Arrested and hospitalized, treated by a pair of overzealous doctors, Chalmers endures a series of tests—something is wrong with his eyes, there’s an anomaly with his brain—and an unauthorized bit of treatment with a new instrument that goes unexplained. His memory restored, after a fashion, and the oddness in his eyes gone, the only immediate remnant of what his family and friends refer to as his “mugging” is a scar on his head and a numbness at his extremities. At the insistence of his wife, he seeks out the eponymous diagnosis. Meanwhile, his own story is paralleled with that of Anytus, the ancient Greek politician partly responsible for the execution of Socrates, a character whom Chalmers’s adolescent son Alex comes upon through an on-line university course he’s pirated. Although comparisons are drawn between Chalmers and Socrates (the numbness of Chalmers’s limbs and the effect of the hemlock on Socrates’; the imprisonment of Socrates in jail and of Chalmers in his body), the metaphor never quite gels.

The depiction of digitally crunched life, however valid, is overdone, the author’s purpose elusive.

Pub Date: Sept. 5th, 2000
ISBN: 0-679-43615-4
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2000


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