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
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
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.
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.