Pantheon Books, 2000

To "diagnose," from the Greek, literally means "to know apart",
that is, to identify a problem, to name the nature or cause of a thing;
it does not mean in any sense to identify a solution to the problem.1

When I read a book, there are actually two of us ingesting the words, [liontamer] the reader and [liontamer] the critic. Hence, when I finish any novel, I generate two opinions, a personal opinion and a critical one. Normally, these are identical, but on occasion they are not. For example, I would elect to have a library of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books with me on a deserted island. Although they have no literary merit, they are enjoyable and fun and they satiate my basic needs as a reader. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, has an opposite effect. While the critic in me agrees it is an exceptional and valuable novel, the easy going reader in me can’t abide the suffering of reading 50 pages dedicated to the details of 19th century agrarian reform.

Now the situation where my schizophrenic reading self walks away from a novel with differing opinions is rare. I’m a critical reader and an avid reader, but my personal needs are met by anything from Dostoyevsky to Auster. I find good books, even if they are as pedantic as Eco or as simplistic as Rowling, enjoyable. Simply put, I love reading and it takes a lot to make this act unpleasurble for me. I’d almost go as far as proposing myself as the perfect reader thatCalvino sought in his brilliant novel If on a winter’s night a traveler.

Hence, I was surprised that a recommendation of my sister’s should offend me as it did. Thanks to my sister, I am the reader that I am today. It was she who refused to allow me to watch the animated version of The Lord of the Rings until I had read the book. I was only eight years old at the time and hated her passionately for denying my childhood rights to cartoons, but I am grateful to her now. In the last decade she has recommended dozens of novels to me and I have enjoyed them all. Until this one.

The Diagnosis is Alan P. Lightman’s second novel to date. His first, Einstein’s Dreams, met with critical success and great acclaim and has received wide comparison to both Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. His second novel was expected to do the same but there appears to be much debate whether this is the case.

When I put the novel down, frustrated and, well, almost, angry. I knew I had to investigate the matter further. I am always willing to admit that maybe my personal preferences cloud my critical judgment and I was ready to change my opinion if someone could convince me of the literary merits of this novel. I awoke the morning after I had finished it and the first thing I thought about was The Diagnosis. Scenes of the novel fled before my mind’s eye, clear and powerful. This is a rare and powerful effect that only exceptionally well written books have, which was odd, since I found Lightman’s writing style anything but exceptional.

Here is a quick synopsis:

While rushing to his office one warm summer morning, Bill Chalmers, a junior executive, realizes that he cannot remember where is going or even who he is. All he remembers is the motto of his company: The maximum information in the minimum time. When Bill’s memory returns, “his head is pounding, remembering too much,” a strange numbness affects him, beginning as a tingling in his hands and gradually spreading over the rest of his body. As he attempts to find a diagnosis of his illness, he descends into a nightmare, enduring a blizzard of medical tests and specialists without conclusive results, the manic frenzy of his company, and a desperate wife who decides that he must be imaging his deteriorating condition.

I spent some time on perusing the reviews posted there and they were mixed. Some had felt that the novel failed in every possible way, others placed it on personal top ten lists. There was, however, a common thread in all the reviews: not one, not even those lavishing praise, claimed that the book was enjoyable. Every reader had experience a sense of unease, of discomfort when reading The Diagnosis.

I began to wonder if this was not the novel’s main intention.

The plot line is simple as is the writing style. Other than Bill Chalmers, the majority of these characters are flat. Bill’s wife is the classically spoiled, suburban homemaker with a quaint antique business on the side. His son is a typically misunderstood adolescent. His office coworkers are exactly what they should be, ladder climbing, back-stabbing and over worked. These stereotypes are the stuff TV dramas and bad Hollywood comedies are made of.

What is interesting is Bill’s astute and minute observations of these characters, extracting profundity from the mundane and truth from the superficial. Lightman introduces his characters almost reluctantly, leaving it to his main character to then dissect and validate them. And this, it turns out, is a main symptom of Chalmer’s disease, this new found ability to discern the smallest details of everything around him.

And it is the copious amount of information that he accumulates during his deterioration that not only paralyzes him, but also the reader. Lightman presents modern day existence as one over saturated by information. He focuses on the depersonalization of relationships between people. He forces this point by introducing a parallel story line in the form of an online course on Plato. This secondary story 2, which is loosely based on Anytus and his involvement in the trial and execution of Socrates, offers a start contrast to our modern world. Anytus uses his slave to convey his messages to his son, while Bill types e-mails to his son, even though he is in the same house.

Perhaps the illness is the dehumanization of society?

In short, he is paralyzed by the world. The detail with which he describes his surroundings, his relationships to the people in his life, his emotions, are overwhelming for the reader. Lightman exposes a modern condition that groups like Adbusters have been trying to bring to the limelight for years: the pollution of the mental environment. This is what makes the novel so difficult, so nauseating to read. There is a truth embedded in the text that you just can’t put your finger on, but that has been troubling the western world for years. The novel is uncomfortable to read for this very reason, it is a truth that not many are willing to admit to and that not many have written about so accurately.

Like Bill’s mysterious illness, this truth is somewhat intangible.

Finally, I spoke to my sister. I would have found the novel much easier to dismiss had anyone else recommended it to me. I also thought that maybe her knowledge as a physician might have made the novel easier for her to digest. With some hesitation I told her that I hadn’t really enjoyed the novel, how it had been a rather unpleasant experience for me and that I was surprised she had lauded it so heavily. Her reply:

Well, I hated every moment of it. That’s why it’s so great.


Ergo, although the novel is not in any sense of the world a relaxing, stimulating read simply because it is not meant to be, it is a good work of literature. I guess the truth is out there and the truth or the reality of the modern age, when looked at under a microscope is not meant to be taken lightly or with ease.

1Amarazon review by: John Sneed from Jackson, MS USA
2I thought this was a rip off from Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, but I am terribly in love with that book that I am quite possibly biased...heavily.

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