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The Diagnosis

A World Like MIT

By Jane Maduram

Staff Writer

Written by Alan P. Lightman

Pantheon Books

ISBN #0679436154

The Diagnosis is the neurotic tale of a man emotionally and physically paralyzed by the time-conscious, technology-dependent world he lives in. The story begins when Bill Chalmers, the angry protagonist of the novel, has temporary amnesia while taking the T to work. (Yes, the story is set in Boston.) While he eventually finds his home and regains his memory, he slowly begins to lose control of and feeling in his arms and legs. This gradual physical incapacity, in addition to Chalmers’s frustrated anger, a series of unresolved medical tests, and the work-centered rat race of Chalmers’s life combine to create a formidable tension that stretches throughout the book.

The writing style fits, for the most part, the crazy pace of the book. The jerky, conversational sentences convey anxiety and fear quite well, and the long sentences provide a stream-of-consciousness style that conveniently puts the reader in the mind of a paranoid man. The integration of e-mail and instant messaging notes in the text, replete with spelling errors, adds to the authenticity of the life presented. If you would like to give an MIT outsider a feeling for problem sets, this book may be one way to communicate that. The ‘intermission’ chapters, which explore the last days of Socrates (presumably in an extended metaphor) are written in an entirely different style which is equally effective and far more relaxing.

When these two styles are combined near the end, while Bill Chalmer is completely paralyzed, the book loses its drive. While Chalmers’s description of the ‘soul of a leaf’ is beautiful and insightful, it seems that a little restraint with adjectives would have strengthened that segment.

The greatest strength of the book, however, comes from the surrealistic scenes that mock society and the protagonist’s life. Near the beginning, Chalmers finds himself in a cube, grabbing money from above while wearing hospital booties and oversized pants. In another, Chalmers is made to undergo a completely unnecessary procedure during his amnesic spell because only then can the new machine be tested without authorization. When the experiment goes wrong, he is hastily shunted to the Psychiatric ward. And in another scene, he is told by a fellow patient that “when Petrov was a young physician, years ago, he occasionally made definate diagnoses, and these were often quite correct. But with the vast increase in medical technology, and with it so many new considerations to take into account, he’s limited ... No one in this room has advanced to a diagnosis pro tem, let alone a final diagnosis, I can assure you.”

With his wittily sarcastic vignettes on life, it’s not surprising that the author, Alan Lightman, is a writing professor at MIT. MIT’s culture seems to be married so tightly to this book, intentionally or not, that the protagonist and many of his colleagues sometimes resemble 40 year-old MIT freshmen. There is, for example, a passage in which Chalmers comments on a person he sees on the train. “He [Chalmers] both detested this man and wanted what he had. He knew him well, had known several men like him in school. They were the ones to whom everything came easily. They were the ones who finished their homework in half the time ... Undoubtedly, he [the man on the train] was current on all that he needed to know, he absorbed information without effort through the pores of his pale skin.”

Another MIT trait that comes up is competition regarding the lack of sleep. “As Bill’s eyes fell upon them, Nate turned toward him and silently held up six fingers, with the well-understood meaning that he had slept only six hours, working the rest of the night from his modem at home. Sidney noted the gesture, snorted, and held out five fingers.”

Later in the book, Chalmer comes to his workplace at night and stumbles into Mr. Stumm, a man who frightens everyone with his seeming efficiency and imperturbability. “Something moved at the desk. Bill turned and noticed for the first time a man sitting there, peering back with a look of embarrassment and panic. His eyes were swollen and bloodshot ... ‘He’s too wicked proud,’ Mrs. Stumm said and propped up her thick legs on a glass tabletop. ‘He doesn’t want anyone to know that he gets so far behind. That’s why we have to sneak up here in the middle of the night.’” The workaholism that Lightman spoofs is, unfortunately, not too far from life at MIT. If this book is, as it seems, a sarcastic exaggeration of today’s technology- and time-pressured world, it is ironic that undergraduate life at MIT is worse.

The Diagnosis is a finalist for the 2000 National Book Award in the category of fiction.