A dark novel about the new economy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Nov 20 07:16:01 MST 2000

NY Times, November 20, 2000

New Economy: A Modern Tragedy Worthy of Plato


It's a long stretch from Socrates drinking the hemlock to Pets.com pulling
the plug. Some 2,400 years in fact. But Alan Lightman, a runner-up in the
National Book Award for fiction that was awarded last week, has produced a
novel connecting what the author sees as the central tragedy of each epoch.

Mr. Lightman's foreboding, sometimes darkly comical book, "The Diagnosis,"
his third novel, is mainly the story of the information-age meltdown of
Bill Chalmers. Our man Chalmers has a wife who dabbles at selling antiques
and who cuckolds him through an online affair. Chalmers is also the father
of a precocious teenage son with whom he communicates more fully via e-mail
than in their awkward face-to-face conversations.

The counterpoint to this contemporary tale is Mr. Lightman's fictionalized
account of the final days of the philosopher Socrates in Athens, 399 B.C.
This part of the novel unfolds in installments from Plato Online, a college
course that Chalmers's son, Alex, downloads from the Internet.

"The story that I'm telling," Mr. Lightman said last week in an interview,
"is a modern American tragedy - the tragedy of how we're living our lives
at the turn of the century in the United States. To give the story weight
and gravity, I wanted to juxtapose it with an ancient tragedy - a world
where ideas were so important that a man could be executed for them."

Chalmers is on the fast track at a professional firm whose precise business
the story never quite identifies, but where status is measured by how many
gigabytes of data each worker can process on behalf of clients. There seem
to be no ideas worth living for, let alone dying over. But any minute not
spent talking on a cell phone, sending e-mail or checking voice mail is a
minute wasted. Chalmers's life is Internet time, 24/7/365, as it might be
measured by Kafka.

The accumulated weight of information overload eventually causes Chalmers's
physical senses to depart him one by one. And in keeping with the book's
central theme - that information is not synonymous with knowledge, that
gathering data should not be confused with understanding life - Chalmers
becomes incapacitated by a disease that cannot be diagnosed, despite
endless rounds of sophisticated medical tests. In the end, blind and
bedridden, he considers himself little more than a brain stem, although a
brain stem that is more morally evolved than the robotic data miner we meet
at the outset.

Mr. Lightman, 51, who holds a Ph.D in theoretical physics and is a
professor of writing and humanistic studies at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, said he hoped readers of "The Diagnosis" would come away
with "an increased awareness of the way that we're living and the state of
mind in modern America."

"We don't have time to think of our priorities, our values," Mr. Lightman
said. "We're just rushing to our next appointment.

"The way that cell phones are used is emblematic. When you're on the cell
phone, you're not where your body is. You're somewhere out there in
hyperspace. By always being somewhere else, rather than where you are,
you're nowhere. It represents the lost state of society. We're nowhere."

In the novel's back story, Socrates's primary persecutor, Anytus, a
wealthy, powerful tanner, gives the philosopher a final choice - exile or
death - as punishment for spreading ideas deemed dangerous to the
established order. The ultimatum is presented in a hellish scene around
putrid vats of rendered animal hides, which give off such a stench that the
Egyptian slaves who attend them have long ago lost their sense of smell.
Many of the parallels between the ancient and contemporary in Mr.
Lightman's novel are indirect. It is only implicit, for example, that the
Egyptian slaves are forebears of slaves to success like Chalmers, rendered
insensate by vats of raw data.

But a closer link is drawn between the two stories when Anytus hears that
Socrates, on his deathbed, has said: "Death is only the separation of the
soul from the body. . . . Men who fear death love the body, and probably
power and money, as well."

Chalmers, who finds his soul only while losing use of his body, toils in a
temple of modern wealth, the Marbleworth Building. The place is a monument
to Edward Marbleworth, "who had made sixty million in the computer software
trade by his thirty-fifth birthday and then turned that into three billion
in the communications industry."

Early in the novel Chalmers is still hoping, despite the onset of his
illness, to rise from junior to senior partner in his firm. He is egged on
by his wife, who during most of his downward spiral is as concerned about
the threat to the family's suburban affluence as she is about her husband's
physical and psychic well-being.

"The pursuit of wealth for its own sake - that is a major thread of our
modern consciousness," Mr. Lightman said. "Studies have been done on this.
If you give people the option of cutting down on their workweek and having
more time for their families and personal lives, or keeping their workweek
and having a pay raise, very few people will give up salary for more
leisure time.

"In the 1950's, when a lot of labor-saving devices were being developed and
personal productivity went up, there were predictions that by the year 2000
the workweek would be cut back to 20 hours. The cruel joke is that none of
this happened. Instead of creating more time for ourselves and exploring
other areas of our lives, we just put more and more time into our jobs and
just produced more and made more money."

At the end of the novel, as he lies in bed longing to finally shed his
useless body, Bill Chalmers conjures a dreamy notion of his son's future
and muses, "Alex might live a life."

It is a hopeful note in a story that otherwise offers little in the way of

Mr. Lightman, who is married to a painter, Jean, and who has two daughters,
ages 20 and 14, said he harbored hope that the next generation might be
able to transcend what he sees as the current culture's empty pursuit of
money and bandwidth. "Maybe our children have to get saturated with this
stuff before they can get beyond it," he said.

When Mr. Lightman observes the undergraduates at M.I.T., "I worry about
them," he said. "I have enormous respect for their minds and their
originality and their creativity. On the other hand, I see them making the
same assumptions about the world that our generation has made - that more
technology is better. I think something's going to have to shake them up."

He said that the bursting of the dot-com stock bubble may have brought some
welcome wariness to the rising generation. "But of course, a lot of M.I.T.
graduates are capable of working on the hardware end of things," he said.
"So they can go off and found a company that produces a new chip and is not
simply selling information on the Internet or creating Web sites."

And what bigger event might "shake up" the next generation? Mr. Lightman
does not pretend to know.

"I'm not highly optimistic," he said. "I wrote `Alex might live a life.' "

Louis Proyect
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