Ana Viseu on 18 Dec 2000 03:26:02 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] The diagnosis: book review

[Lightman, Allan. (2000). The diagnosis. New York: Pantheon Books]

Diagnosing a social reality

The diagnosis is a harsh social critique of our all embracing 
technoinformational world. Yet, rather than building the novel around a 
science-fiction future its author, Allan Lightman a professor at the MIT, 
sets the story in the present. While reading The diagnosis readers will 
constantly float between a sigh of relief“this will never happen”and the 
uncomfortable recognition that it already has.

The diagnosis has several different levels of reading. At the simplest 
level there is unproblematic story. Bill Chalmers, the main protagonist, is 
a junior partner in a consulting firm. He has a wife, a son, a house and a 
car. One day, while sitting on the subway on his way to work, he looses his 
memory. When he recovers he realizes that his hands are numb. The doctors 
are unable to find the cause of his numbness, and refer him to more and 
more specialists. Increasingly the rest of his body becomes numb.

On a second reading, however, the story becomes trickier. Bill’s wife is 
having an electronic affair. Bill mainly communicates with his son over 
email. His job is to process information. Of any sort. The more megabytes 
he processes, the more he earns. His doctor, Dr. Petrov, was once able to 
make “definite diagnosis, and these were often quite correct. But with the 
vast increase in medical technology, and with so many new considerations to 
take into account” [1] he no longer does. His psychiatrist simply 
recommends higher and higher doses of Prozac or Paxil as these make no effect.

The diagnosis is all about everyday episodes that uncover an uncomfortable 
social reality. Lightman depicts situations known to everyone and 
highlights their incongruences. For example, sitting in the waiting room 
while waiting to be called in is usually a not-talked about situation. But 
Lightman describes a waiting room composed of a woman who “type[s] 
nervously at her laptop, another scribble[s] on documents in manila 
folders, a man in the corner lean[s] over some massive report and mutter[s] 
into his cell phone ” [2]. In The diagnosis everyone is obsessed with time, 
with being connected and reachable, and with work.

One of the best scenes is the party at the Bill’s boss’ house. During this 
party the boss announces the creation of a new company: LifeImages. “As our 
first acquisition” he says, “we have just purchased the rights to all 
images of every American'’ birth certificate, including the handwritten 
signature of the attending physician…. From now on… there will be no more 
delays in obtaining government copies of birth certificates. Through 
LifeImages, copies can be downloaded instantly. Birth records can be 
corollated with whatever personal information the user wants…. This is 
America. I love it” [3]. The crowd exhilarates, finally market driven 

It is not until the end of the novel that Lightman eases our role as 
readers. He does so by showing a totally paralyzed Bill, that recognizes 
the superficiality of it all and is willing to spell it out. “I’ll tell you 
what’s going to happen to you” Bill tells his son, “You’ll get a good job, 
probably paying big bucks. Maybe you’ll work downtown like I did, in one of 
those skyscrapers with a view of the ocean. Then you’ll be in your late 
twenties and married, you’ll start to have indigestion…. But you won’t 
realize what’s happening…. You’ll be making more and more money. You’ll 
live in a big house, you’ll have nice cars and suits. You’ll be promoted 
and taken to dinner at Locke-O’bers by the top brass. And you won’ be able 
to stop because you won’t notice, you won’t realize what is happening. And 
even if you did realize, you won’t do anything about it because you’re a 
coward. And when you’re in your forties and fifties you’ll gradually lose 
your mind…. Or you might get a little too far behind, and they’ll fire you 
and have you in a coffin before you know what’s happened” [4].

Lightman’s writing style is at times very heavy. He does not try to spare 
readers from a feeling of awkwardness. On the contrary. The diagnosis seems 
to be written in order to provoke it. Lightman plays with reality and 
fiction in order to create situations from which the reader cannot escape.

One might like it or not, I personally did, but The diagnosis is certainly 
a book that will be hard to forget.

All references from The diagnosis:
[1] p.  112
[2] p. 107
[3] p. 237
[4] p. 351

Tudo vale a pena se a alma nao e pequena.

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