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Intensive Care

The Diagnosis

by Alan Lightman
Pantheon, 369 pp., $25.00

Einstein’s Dreams

by Alan Lightman
Warner Books, 179 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Good Benito

by Alan Lightman
Warner Books, 215 pp., $8.99 (paper)

Dance for Two

by Alan Lightman
Pantheon, 169 pp., $12.00 (paper)

It was easier, I think now and then, to be a novelist or a poet in the days before cable television. Today it only takes ten minutes of flipping channels to find that whatever pet theory one had about the world up to that moment is badly shaken. It’s one thing to think about America in the abstract and another to actually see half a dozen preachers preaching, talk shows on everything from politics to dieting, ceaselessly repeated commercials, forty-year-old sitcoms with canned laughter, cooking shows, wars and revolutions in progress, music videos, soaps, the shopping channels selling wigs, discount jewelry, burglary alarms, and Samurai steak knives. “We are coming to you live,” the reporters remind us from a forest fire or an of-fice building where a disgruntled em-ployee has shot his boss and six other co-workers.

It is, of course, impossible to watch any of this for more than a few minutes since one can’t help being curious about what is on the next channel. There is just too much of everything. We can either try to take it in stride, sitting back dumbfounded, or seek consolation in the latest literary theory which keeps guaranteeing that there is no world beyond language. “Don’t confuse me with facts,” people say jokingly, and there is some truth in that. What is called realism has always been based on a principle of selection, a way of cutting up that messy reality into manageable parts; television tries to do this while making the reality more of a mess.

Alan Lightman is like a man who, after gazing at a mirror in a dark cellar, takes it out into the living room, then out into the busy street. His first novel, Einstein’s Dreams, owes a debt to the poetic and philosophical fiction of Borges and Calvino, in which verisimilitude and plausibility are not an issue and the quality of the imagination is what counts. His second novel, Good Benito, uses a fairly familiar strategy in contemporary fiction: it is an autobiography in the guise of a novel, concerned to suggest that the hero’s own story is representative of a broader contemporary intellectual and moral predicament.

In comparison to these two, his most recent novel, The Diagnosis, is a far more ambitious undertaking, involving a larger cast of contemporary characters. After finishing this book, it may not seem strange at all when we see six phenomenally overweight women in miniskirts share their sex lives with us on TV, or a grinning congressman in a paid ad, wearing an obvious toupee, who promises, if elected, to promote family values and pass no gun legislation.

Lightman, who was born in Memphis in 1948, teaches physics and writing at MIT. Before bringing out Einstein’s Dreams in 1993, he wrote and published essays on science, translating its complex theories into everyday examples. Einstein’s Dreams purports to be a collection of dreams Albert Einstein had in the crucial weeks before he formulated his special theory of relativity. In the period described, Einstein was a clerk in a patent office in Basel, Switzerland, spending much of his days wool-gathering in a room full of practical ideas. “I want to understand time because I want to get close to The Old One,” he says to a friend.

The invention of the first mechanical clock, which replaced the shadow clock, water clock, and the hourglass, quantified the passage of time and measured out exactly the moments of a life. Every mood, every action, every moment of solitude was no longer free but imprisoned within the movement of its gears. Our clocks, with their specific concept of time, have an effect on everything from metaphysics to psychology. Our notions of the empirical and transcendental are the product of our idea of time. Behind every philosophical proposition and lyric poem ticks the clock. A narrative converts time into space. Does that mean that if we had different clocks, we would have a different literature? Of course. Here’s a passage from Einstein’s Dreams:

In a world where time is a sense, like sight or like taste, a sequence of episodes may be quick or may be slow, dim or intense, salty or sweet, causal or without cause, orderly or random, depending on the prior history of the viewer. Philosophers sit in cafés on the Armathausgasse and argue whether time really exists outside human perception. Who can say if an event happens fast or slow, causally or without a cause, in the past or the future? Who can say if events happen at all? The philosophers sit with half-opened eyes and compare their aesthetics of time.

The thirty short chapters propose a series of new and incompatible conceptions of time, fantasies that might conceivably have occurred to Einstein as he worked out his new conceptions. In each chapter scarcely identified characters are living in worlds with different systems of time. For example, in one dream, time is a circle where the world repeats itself endlessly. In others, time stands still; time is not a quantity but a quality like the luminescence of the night above the trees; time cannot be measured since there are no clocks, no calendars, no definitive appointments; or time is a local phenomenon so that two clocks close together tick at the same rate, but clocks at a distance work at different rates. Each idea of time makes for a different universe, and what Lightman is doing is imagining what its self-contained reality, with its own laws, would be like. For instance, in a world where time flows more slowly the farther one is from the center of the earth, the people most eager to live longer have built their houses on the highest stilts.

Despite its favorable reviews, Einstein’s Dreams is not a very good book. Lightman makes it clear that he is familiar with Calvino’s Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities, but his ideas are far more interesting than their execution. The prose is often stiff and quickly begins to have a formulaic quality; the fables rely on cardboard characters and stock descriptions. For the most part, the separate dreams fail to work imaginatively. Nevertheless, there are a number of exquisite lyrical passages, and Lightman’s ideas about time and memory anticipate the philosophical underpinning of his next two books.

Lightman’s next novel, Good Benito (1994), is a work of psychological realism with distinct and fully developed characters. The story of Bennett Lang, an aspiring scientist who grows up in Memphis and eventually becomes a professor of physics, seems to reflect Lightman’s own experience. It is told through a collage of self-contained chapters that reshuffle the chronology. We begin with Dr. Lang, newly hired at a small college, being asked by the dean to approach a brilliant, reclusive professor of physics, one Arnold Scalopino, who has not published anything in years but who appears to be still theorizing, and see if he can get some of that theory turned into an article and have it published. After gaining the trust of the eccentric physicist, who lives alone with his daughter, Lang examines the files and finds the mathematics difficult to follow since Scalopino has skipped many steps between one equation and the next and left out any reference to prior research. Bennett, of course, asks for explanations, but the physicist is not interested in giving any. “You get into trouble when you use words,” he says. “Words are ambiguous. Mathematics is not.” As the young professor comes to understand, “Scalopino floats in some netherworld, half of the body and half of the mind. He can no more describe to Bennett what he is thinking than a great ballerina can say how she does a pirouette.” Nevertheless, he is constantly working, covering pages and scraps of paper with equations and gives the impression of being contented with his life.

In Dance for Two (1996), a collection of twenty-four brief essays on such diverse matters as why birds fly or the manner in which a ballerina uses the laws of physics, Lightman explains the Scalopino type:

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, scientists generally divide into two camps, theorists and experimentalists. The abstractionists and the tinkerers. Especially in the physical sciences, the distinction can be spotted straight off. It has since been my observation that, in addition to their skills in the lab, the experimentalists (particularly the males) can fix things around the house, know what’s happening under the hood of a car, and have a special appeal to the opposite sex. Theorists stick to their own gifts, like engaging themselves for hours with a mostly blank sheet of paper and discussing chess problems at lunch. Sometimes in college, either by genes or by accident, a budding scien-tist starts drifting one way or the other. From then on, things are pretty much settled.

Already at the age of ten or eleven, Bennett has converted a large storage closet in his room into a laboratory and stocked it with batteries, capacitors, test tubes, Bunsen burners, bottles of sulfuric acid all neatly organized and labeled. His two younger brothers have no interest in it, so his partner in scientific adventures is a boy named John. His gadgets work and Bennett’s don’t, although John pays no attention to diagrams or theories. He just has the magic touch. Bennett, on the other hand, as he begins to realize himself, is a ponderer. Clarity attracts him. In algebra there’s always an answer. In school his classmates hate math while he devours problems, finds them delicious, and even convinces his astounded teacher to give him additional homework. Equations are beautiful on the page, but especially in the mind. He gets the same feeling when he begins to understand a problem as when he sees the moon rise over the trees.

Bennett’s family is neither particularly encouraging nor discouraging. His father comes home after work, mumbles a few words, and then says nothing for the rest of the evening. His mother, too, is distant, not un-kind but preoccupied with herself. The boy is closest to their black maid and Maury, his mother’s disreputable brother. Maury is an inveterate gambler who has his nephew calculate for him once a week the odds on dog races or card games. Between posing questions in probability theory, he tells family stories. The uncle is also able to fix anything from a radio to bathroom plumbing. He brings his tools with him every time he visits the family. Finally, there’s Rabbi Spear, a lonely, unhappy man who often invites Bennett to his house. What attracts the young physicist to Judaism is its belief in rationality. “Rabbi Spear’s reasoning seemed rational, but it didn’t lead to an answer. Maybe that’s what we need God for,” Bennett thinks, “to tell us what’s right and what’s wrong in the hard cases. We can figure out the rest by ourselves.”

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