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Only Connect
Alan Lightman's
The Diagnosis

by Charlie Onion

The cautionary aspects of Alan Lightman's The Diagnosis may make it necessary reading; its tragic elements--our caring for its hero as a human--make it almost unbearably haunting.

Bill Chalmers, the forty-year-old hero of Alan Lightman's The Diagnosis, is commuting to another meeting-filled day at Plymouth Limited ("maximum information in the minimum time") when something terrifying happens: he forgets, utterly and hopelessly, who he is, where he's from or where he's going. Unfortunately, he's lost his briefcase and wallet, and his cell phone doesn't work either, so he has nothing to fall back on for clues about who, in fact, he is.

After the cops pick him up on the subway, he finds himself in a psychiatric ward. He manages to escape, but now he's forced to wander alone through the city streets, poorly dressed and befuddled: "What kind of man am I? I could be a fraud. Or the president of a bank. I could be a slacker. Could I be a slacker? Who am I? Who am I?" Eventually,

The Diagnosis
Alan Lightman
373 pp.
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Chalmers stumbles into a church holding a bingo rally and remembers, quite suddenly, who he is. But his problems aren't over. The next morning, safely home, he discovers his arms are numb.


He regarded his numb hands and arms with a strange disconnection, almost a contempt. They were dead limbs protruding from the trunk of a tree. Every few minutes, a wave of tingling would surge down his arms from his shoulders, prickle in his fingertips, and then flow up again. Otherwise, there was no sensation, no heat, no cold, no quivering of blood, no pressure inside or out. He scraped the point of a paperclip across the skin of his forearm, making white lines in his flesh, and felt nothing. What an ugly marvel that his fingers and hands could move without feeling, like remote-control toys on the other side of the room. Press a button here, they jump and twirl there.


Soon, the numbness spreads to his legs, and paralysis seems like a realistic threat. From losing his sense of identity, Chalmers has now slid into a encroaching sense of a profound disconnection from the physical world:


When walking, he had the strange sensation that the ground moved while he was at rest, as if he were a fixed point in space, watching the planet slide by beneath him. No longer was he connected to the earth. He floated. Since childhood, he had wanted to float in the air like a bird. Now, he detested it.


The doctors (psychiatrists as well as neurologists) Chalmers visits run an endless battery of tests, but nothing definitive emerges from them, and the doctors aren't willing to hazard a diagnosis without clear test results. No worry, though, they tell him: more tests are scheduled, and his case looks promising. In time, of course, their professional optimism rings false. While Chalmers initially expected medicine (and later, the law) to help him cure his body (and redress his company's wrongs), he soon finds that he has, in fact, stumbled into mind-numbingly vast, Kafka-like warrens of infinite regress.

Lightman himself isn't interested in giving his readers a clear diagnosis either, but he implies that Chalmers's dilemma is, at heart, an existential one. The reasons for which he struggles so valiantly at a tiresome job (with its attendant rush-and-wait daily commutes, pagers, e-mail and cell phones) have slipped away, and he finds himself, suddenly, standing before the effects of his meaningless, hungry-ghost life and seeing it truly for the first time. The tender, young moments he had with his wife, the hugs he used to give his son before he was deemed too old for them--the moments that gave Chalmers's life meaning and purpose are almost forgotten, and in their place he finds only the poor substitutes of consumerist-driven getting and spending. ("The perfect modern man," Lightman writes, "was also a mall man, of course. The mall was clearly the most efficient way to shop, the maximum product in the minimum time. The rush was all part of it, an easy good rush.") In a sense, then, Chalmers's sudden disengagement from his memory and then from his body is merely a metaphor for his own middle-aged emotional calcification, the loss of even the memory of the golden touch of his youth--and his inability to bridge the emotional abyss now.

If the problem sounds familiar to many readers, the solution is gratifyingly clear as well: Chalmers must clear the soul-destroying distractions from his mind and, as E.M. Forster famously advised, "Only connect." Visiting his lawyer, Chalmers's attention drifts from the office's cacophony to the Public Garden outside the window:


How much he would like to be down in the garden with Melissa at this moment, in one of the green-bottomed swanboats that he could see in the distance, floating quietly beneath weeping willows. Or walking among the trees, which dabbed the crisscrossing paths through the park like colored balls of cotton. At the corners of each patch of velvety grass, he could see dots of red and yellow and orange, the marigolds still in bloom, reflecting the smooth autumn light. He imagined that he and Melissa were walking there now. They had no destination, no place they had to be, they could just stroll through the garden, stop whenever they wished, look at the water or sit on a bench. Fronds from a willow tree dropped in her hair. Wind blew across his face.


Being a numb, paralyzed man, of course, Chalmers can only daydream of such moments, though.

The Diagnosis is by turns a grimly black comedy and a bleak cautionary tale. But it is also, in the end, simply an immensely moving, sad story, particularly when Lightman shows Chalmers's brightly burning love for his son, Alex.


"Come over here by me," said Bill. He sat by the window, the light flowing in smooth now.

Alex walked slowly to his father. When the boy got to the wheelchair, he put his hands to his face.

"I love you, Alex," said Bill. He leaned forward in his chair and touched the boy's shoulder. "Come closer, I can't reach you."

Alex kneeled to the floor and put his head in his father's lap.

"I love you," whispered Bill. "I've made a mess of things. But I love you."

"Please don't die."

"I'm not going to die."

Alex tried to say something but couldn't. "Do you promise?" he mumbled.

"I'm doing everything I can."

Alex raised his head up. His face was wet from tears and shone in the light coming in from the window. "I want you the way you used to be," he said.

"I'm trying. I'm trying to get well. Do you know how much I love you?"

Alex nodded his head yes. After a few moments, he stood up and dried his eyes on his shirt. "I'm going back to my room."

Bill watched as he left and closed the door.


The cautionary aspects of The Diagnosis may make it necessary reading; its tragic elements--our caring for Chalmers as a human--make it almost unbearably haunting.




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