Alan Lightman
Alan Lightman; drawing by David Levine

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.”

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.

This Issue

February 22, 2001