Dance for Two
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 …