Good Benito, as his friend John calls him, wants to believe that he can solve any problem with a reasoned approach. He is a prodigiously gifted, decent, and sensitive youth. We watch him come to realize that his talent and ambitions have a short life. Bennett ends up a professor at a small college, divorced after a short, unhappy marriage, and also very much alone. The novel concludes with him and his niece on a beach in Maine lost in a fog. The little girl wants to know what fog is, and he readily gives her a scientific explanation; but for the fog that is his life, he has no answer. The rare moments of discovery, when he arrives at the solution to a difficult problem and his body turns as light as a feather as he contemplates the answer in all its visionary beauty, are all in the past. Whatever self-confidence he had that he was the agent of his own destiny is gone. He’s like a onetime teenage chess champion who after the age of forty finds himself playing with his barber and losing.
Good Benito is not only an unusually intelligent book, but also an affecting one. The lives of each of the characters turn out to be a mess. Bennett’s wife, Penny, is the most extreme example. She is a good painter but won’t exhibit her work even after she’s invited to do so. She cannot bring herself to have any hope in the future. Eventually, her hopelessness overwhelms him too. He becomes cruel, begins to act illogically. He can’t think of anything else to do but write to his school friend, John, whom he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. He knows that John won’t answer, yet he wants him to know. Here he seems to reenact the situation of the novelist, addressing an ideal silent reader, sharing one’s solitude with an unknown other.
Lightman’s new novel, The Diagnosis, has a nightmarish and magnificently rendered opening. Bill Chalmers, the book’s main character, suddenly loses his memory on the way to work in a crowded Boston subway. Chalmers is a busy man, a junior executive in some sort of information-gathering company. His time is valuable. He often consults his watch, and while waiting for the train occupies himself by checking messages on his cell phone and giving instructions to his office. He’s anxious, overwhelmed with thoughts of coming appointments and eager to get to work, when he suddenly forgets who he is and where he’s supposed to get off. He remembers that he is due at the office at 9:00, that he has meetings at 9:15, 10:30, and noon, but not with whom he is meeting or for what reason.
He’s so distraught that it doesn’t occur to him to open his briefcase and check his appointment book. It’s as if he is in one of Einstein’s fictional dreams. He is trapped in a moment with only the vaguest memory of other moments. Everyone around him in the subway car, reading reports, making memos, checking off columns of figures and lists, appears at ease and confident about his or her plans for the day. Each time the train pulls into a station, people race off, people race in, while he stays put. Then it gets worse. On the advice of his chiropractor he has been keeping his wallet in his briefcase, which he suddenly can’t find. Throughout it all, he’s unable to ask anyone for help. He has a vision of being laughed at. He rides to the end of the line and back again with no result. “What’s happening to me?” he asks himself, his hair matted with sweat, his tie dangling loosely, his jacket gone. It’s already after eleven o’clock. When the police finally board the train, they find him curled up on the floor in a fetal position and clasping a cell phone to his bare chest.
He is taken to the Boston City Hospital emergency room, where two doctors give him a series of tests that prove inconclusive. Eager to test a new state-of-the-art computer-guided apparatus, thinking he is a nobody, with no one to object on his behalf, they subject him to a brain biopsy. The doctors ask him no questions; they anticipate that their amazing machine will show them why this man has lost his memory. It doesn’t.
Late that night Chalmers escapes from the hospital, wanders the empty streets until he stumbles on a church where a large crowd of people are playing bingo. Lightman’s writing is amazingly evocative here, describing a carnival-like scene so visually rich that it recalls scenes from Fellini and even Hieronymus Bosch. It’s a hot June night. People are packed in, hollering and arguing, boiling with greed. In a far corner he sees a stained-glass window picturing Jesus leaning over his disciples while twenty-dollar bills flutter down from the ceiling of a cash booth that the bingo winner has entered. Chalmers finds that one of his hands has gone numb and that the other one is tingling. Eventually, in the pandemonium, he’s recognized by a man who works in his building, and his memory comes back almost as rapidly as it had vanished.
He remembers he has a wife and son, and where he left his car, and worries what his family will say. He decides to tell them that he was mugged, because he cannot bring himself to recount his humiliating loss of memory on the subway. By the time he drives home, both of his hands are completely numb while his other senses are unusually alert. He notices everything down to the precise curve of the dashboard, the scratch on the right of the ignition switch. It’s as if he had been born at this very moment. He feels so alive, so intensely aware of his own existence, that he is overwhelmed with awe and a little scared that this should happen now.
Chalmers is in his early forties. He is one of the countless well-dressed, successful men and women sitting all day long before their computer screens, driven by tremendous pressures in a fast-track job in a new technology where one is often at a loss to describe what it is one really does for a living. Without realizing it, he has sold himself for a promise of a better life. On the face of it, he seems the embodiment of our recent middle-class prosperity. He owns a house in an affluent suburb; his wife, Melissa, has an antiques store; they have a teenage son, Alex, who is a computer whiz and who is learning to fence. As is usually the case, the truth is something else. The three of them cannot find time for each other and are growing apart. Father and son communicate by e-mail even from adjoining rooms. His wife is a self-centered, vain woman consumed with frustrated desire to amass valuable objects. She has a drinking problem and is conducting an affair of sorts over e-mail with a professor she has never met. All three of them are lonely. They are leading what are by now familiar, comfortable, and secretly miserable American lives.
In the days after the incident, Chalmers is more worried about his job, about falling behind with his work, than about his medical condition. When he returns to the office after a couple of days, there’s a surprise welcome party for him. He sticks to the story that he was mugged and his co-workers offer their sympathies, although Chalmers in his increasing paranoia suspects that his boss and perhaps one or two others have noticed the awkwardness of his numb hands. He’s wrong. Only his son, who truly loves him, could see immediately that there’s something not right with his father. What makes Chalmers anxious and saps his will is the realization that he is no longer the same man. As he says,
And to think that just a short time ago, he was just like them, fiercely competing for promotion, obsessed with squeezing work from each minute of the day, backbiting and jealous and petty. Now, with just the mere separation of ten feet, he could see that he was not one of them at all. Larger things ruled life. Promotion was a fine thing, and he certainly wanted his promotion, but…
It is Lightman’s accomplishment as a novelist that his main character, who at the start of the novel seems almost a cliché of a modern executive on the run, becomes a distinct person as the story progresses, although the medical profession certainly doesn’t treat him as one. When he finally sees his doctor, he gets a cursory examination and is advised to take a series of tests that will narrow down and rule out possibilities. In the meantime, the doctor refuses to give him even a preliminary diagnosis, saying that he will begin treatment as soon as he makes one. Chalmers’s subsequent medical history reads like a black comedy, but a familiar one. We all have friends who have undergone something similar, or have ourselves: more and more sophisticated tests show nothing wrong while the patient’s health deteriorates.
With numbness in his hands, Chalmers’s typing becomes exceedingly slow. His fingers jam together, causing repeated mistakes. His mind, too, is a muddle. He doesn’t understand what is happening to him. He has always played by the rules and resents the affliction and humiliation he has to endure. Notwithstanding, his doctor, who communicates with him by e-mail, keeps assuring him that they are making significant progress and are ready to begin another round of tests. When Chalmers begins complaining that medicine hasn’t done anything for him so far, the doctor sends him to a psychiatrist who, after questioning him, arrives at a diagnosis. He finds that his patient is under great stress and full of anger and insinuates that the problem may be psychosomatic. He prescribes larger and larger dosages of Prozac, which he confidently predicts will eliminate the numbness.
Chalmers’s wife concurs with that view. All along, she believes that her husband’s illness is mental even as he becomes more and more of an invalid and ends up in a wheelchair. If only he could feel physical pain, he tells himself, not just numbness. He must have done something terribly wrong to deserve this. “This can’t happen to us. Why is this happening?” his wife chimes in. She thinks that he’s stubbornly throwing away everything they worked for, his job, his health, and his family. “Don’t you get it, Bill? It’s all in your head,” she says. Chalmers feels guilty, but he hasn’t done anything bad. He knows that he got a raw deal somewhere, but is not sure where and how. He is not a religious man so he cannot ask God for forgiveness. It could be, he suspects, that his suffering is utterly meaningless. In the end, he, too, is unable to make a diagnosis.
Alongside the story of Chalmers’s decline, The Diagnosis has a series of chapters supposedly downloaded in installments from an Internet course, PLATO ONLINE, which his son is taking. They tell the story of Anytus, a wealthy tanner and former general of the Thirty-Year War against Sparta who has brought charges against Socrates for corrupting the young and making fun of the gods. It, too, is a tale of a man of action, an angry and guilt-ridden man determined to execute the philosopher, who accepts his fate stoically and who dies insisting that men must examine themselves and believe what their own minds and souls tell them.
Lightman seems to be suggesting that we all have something of both Socrates and Anytus in ourselves. Paradoxically, as Chalmers loses more and more of his body to numbness, he regains his soul. He is aware of everything and yet he cannot lift his little finger. As he draws inward, he learns to see in ways that are new to him. While he still can, he traces on the floor of his bedroom the shadow of a single leaf from one hour to the next. Every tiny bend and indentation, each one slightly different from the next, he labors to record. It occurs to him that someone might determine from the accuracy of his drawing the time and place it was made; he could leave a trace of his life that way. If not for his illness, he would not be taking pleasure in what he sees—tiny splotches of white on the shingled roof, the way the ribbon on a neighbor’s mailbox slowly flutters, the glint of chrome on a car passing down the street, the kite caught in a tree. Dying, he salvages a bit of reality from his unexamined life by means of a newly acquired sensibility.
The Diagnosis is a mixture of styles, including everything from realistic description at its most documentary to passages of poetic prose and minimalist narrative. Such a combination does not make for a seamless tale. Nevertheless, even with its rough transitions, the novel has a powerful cumulative effect. Lightman’s prose gives the impression of a writer who is angry, driven, yet able to conceive something quietly chilling. He wants to uncover the fate of the nameless characters who are lost sight of in our glib talk of globalism and high-tech. Religion, business, lawyers, insurance companies, doctors, malls, all come under a scathing and familiar criticism for their heedlessness and money-grubbing.
Poor Chalmers thinks he has made a mess of things. He is worried that his son will end up like him. The implication of The Diagnosis, of course, is that it is our age that has made a mess of things by bringing about momentous changes which none of us really comprehends. What makes the book poignant is that it is a story of an ordinary man who ends up being a heroic figure in a tragic setting. He believes in a system that mysteriously kills him. When he no longer accepts it, when he realizes that he and many others have been walking on thin ice, it’s too late. In the meantime, even on his deathbed new tests keep coming back to him saying that everything is perfectly normal.