Alan Lightman’s The Diagnosis

I have just finished reading The Diagnosis (Pantheon Books, 2000) by Alan Lightman. I began it more than twenty years ago, when it first came out. Something like a quarter of the way through the book, I was distracted and put it aside. When I returned to it late last year, I had to go back and reread from the beginning.

The novel is the story of Bill Chalmers’ descent into illness. It starts as he’s heading to work, getting ready to board the Boston subway Red Line. It’s 8:22 in the morning. Bill looks at his watch in what becomes one of his most characteristic habits and sees the exact time.

His decline begins when he can’t remember where he’s supposed to exit the train. His deterioration continues until he is completely disabled. On the last page of the text, unable to move, Bill listens to the rain. My sense was that the author intended the reader to understand that Bill is dying. His illness never was diagnosed.

The book is a model of modern literary fiction novel. Not much happens. The focus is on the protagonist and his attempts to go on living in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Given the defeats he is subjected to, Bill comes across as both humble and admirable.

As a fiction author, I found much to admire in Lightman’s work. He made no attempt to romanticize Bill or disguise the human defects that weaken all of us. Instead, Bill comes across as profoundly human, doing the best he can knowing that death lies ahead.

That said, I was less than impressed with some of Lightman’s fiction technique. As is so often true with me, I was impatient with Lightman’s wordiness. I wanted more economy, less wandering. I found especially irritating his fondness for repeating sentences verbatim.

But I’m all too aware that my preferences spring from my discipline, namely writing literary fiction. Most readers won’t notice what I consider flaws. More serious is the overall outlook of the book. It ends with the protagonist accepting defeat. In my writing, I emphasize what I have done in my living: finding hope. All my novels and most (maybe all—I’m not sure) of my short stories end with hope for the future.

Hope springs eternal. Thank God.

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