Awards
National Book Award for Fiction Best Book (nominee)
In the bravura opening chapter of Alan Lightman's novel The Diagnosis, a nameless horror befalls Boston businessman Bill Chalmers in the hubbub of his morning commute. As he jostles his way aboard the train and makes cell-phone calls to check last-minute details on his morning meeting (for Bill is punctilious), a realisation surfaces in his brain, "like a trapped bubble of air rising from the bottom of a deep pond". He has forgotten where he's going. All he can remember is his anxious urgency and his company's creed, "The maximum information in the minimum time". Acutely aware that he's got a 9:15 appointment, but recalling only the first six digits of his phone number, Bill helplessly gazes out the window. "Trees flew by like flailing arms ... Railroad tracks fluttered by like matchsticks. Trees, white and grey clapboard houses with paint peeling off, junkyards with stacks of flaccid tires". Lightman's Kafka pastiche is as pitch perfect as his verbal music: note the rhyming x sounds in stacks and flaccid (which is not pronounced "flassid").

Terrifyingly soon, Bill is mad, homeless, beaten and experimented on by comically evil doctors. He recovers and reunites with his family, but inexorably, mysterious paralysis ensues. Doctors try to diagnose him. Coworkers offer empty condolences and plot to steal his fast-track job. His wife seeks consolation with a passionate virtual lover on the Internet, a professor she's never met in the flesh. His teenage son triumphantly hacks into AOL's Plato Online, and Bill's last days are counterpointed with the trial of Socrates and his troubled, rich inquisitor Anytus. Instead of the real story, we get a second shimmering Lightman fable. Anytus's strife with his rebel son, a Socrates supporter, parallels Bill's grief as his son is distanced from him by illness.

Though I felt glimmerings of understanding from time to time, I never did fully figure out exactly what the Socrates story and Bill's decline have to say about each other, nor what Bill's paralysis says about modern times. I implore a smarter reader to explain it to me in the customer comments below. But I can tell you that every character is resonant, and every sensory particular is exquisitely precise, as in Lightman's biggest hit, the Italo Calvino pastiche Einstein's Dreams. --Tim Appelo


Get it on Google Play

Similar books by other authors


Used availability for Alan Lightman's The Diagnosis

Hardback Editions

August 2000 : UK Hardback
thumb

Title: The Diagnosis
Author(s): Alan P Lightman
ISBN: 0-7475-4932-X / 978-0-7475-4932-1 (UK edition)
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Availability: Amazon   Amazon UK   Amazon CA   


September 2000 : USA Hardback
thumb

Title: The Diagnosis: A Novel
Author(s): Alan Lightman
ISBN: 0-679-43615-4 / 978-0-679-43615-7 (USA edition)
Publisher: Pantheon
Availability: Amazon   Amazon UK   Amazon CA   


Paperback Editions

February 2002 : USA Paperback
thumb

Title: The Diagnosis: A Novel
Author(s): Alan Lightman
ISBN: 0-375-72550-4 / 978-0-375-72550-0 (USA edition)
Publisher: Vintage
Availability: Amazon   Amazon UK   Amazon CA   


September 2001 : UK Paperback
thumb

Title: The Diagnosis
Author(s): Alan P Lightman
ISBN: 0-7475-5391-2 / 978-0-7475-5391-5 (UK edition)
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Availability: Amazon UK   


Audio Editions

March 2005 : USA Audio edition
thumb

Title: The Diagnosis
Author(s): Alan Lightman
Publisher: Books on Tape
Availability: Amazon   


March 2005 : Canada Audio edition
thumb

Title: The Diagnosis
Author(s): Alan Lightman
Publisher: Books on Tape
Availability: Amazon CA   


March 2005 : UK Audio edition
thumb

Title: The Diagnosis
Author(s): Alan Lightman
Publisher: Books on Tape
Availability: Amazon UK   


November 2000 : USA Audio Cassette
thumb

Title: The Diagnosis
Author(s): Alan Lightman
ISBN: 0-7366-5903-X / 978-0-7366-5903-1 (USA edition)
Publisher: Books on Tape
Availability: Amazon UK   Amazon CA   


January 2001 : USA Audio CD
thumb

Title: The Diagnosis
Author(s): Alan Lightman
ISBN: 0-7366-5904-8 / 978-0-7366-5904-8 (USA edition)
Publisher: Books on Tape
Availability: Amazon UK   Amazon CA   


Kindle Editions

March 2001 : USA, Canada Kindle edition
thumb

Title: The Diagnosis: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries)
Author(s): Alan Lightman
Publisher: Vintage
Availability: Amazon   Amazon CA