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Alan's Nightmare

Time and again, novelist Alan Lightman challenges his readers


Do you ever think about how time can seem like nothing more than an illusion? For instance, when you're at work, eight hours can seem to take a week to pass by, but if you're reading a good book, three hours can seem like 20 minutes? If time is little more than illusion, it might explain a lot of things, such as ghosts, déjà vu and Cher's unlined face.

Cosmologist/writer Alan Lightman's 1993 bestselling collection of tales, Einstein's Dreams, articulated the illusiveness of time as well as any poet has. Each of the 30 dream-stories imagines a world where time moves according to different rules. In one story, some people choose to live by the rhythms of the clock, whereas others refuse to acknowledge time at all. In another, those with ambitions find their goals trumped again and again by passing time. Each of these worlds, metaphorically, is our world, where time is a creature we can never quite fathom.

In 2000, Lightman offered The Diagnosis, a novel as different from Einstein's Dreams as Marilyn Manson is from Kurt Warner. Where the earlier book was "playful," as Lightman says, Diagnosis is unrelentingly grim, an exploration of the ways technology closes us off from one another. The book begins with a businessman having a grand mal attack of amnesia on the subway -- he forgets his job, his address, his name, everything. Shortly after, he recovers his memory but is left with a curious feeling of numbness that can't be diagnosed. Soon we see that the tale is an allegory for modern culture's downward spiral, for everyone in the novel is in a perpetual rush, valuing trappings more than meaning, until numbness and, finally, death overtakes them.

"It's so easy to be a passive passenger in all this speed around us," says Lightman. "You really have to make an active, conscious effort to slow down in order to think about what's important to you and what your values and priorities are, and most of us don't have time in the day to do that, day after day after day."

Thus our grim conclusion.

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