by Alan Lightman
available at major bookstores
Alan Lightman's second published work of fiction, Good Benito, feels a lot like a first novel. Arguably it is, since this book reads much more like a novel than did Lightman's 1993 book Einstein's Dreams, a series of fictional meditations on time. It seems probable that Good Benito is, like many first novels, fairly autobiographical, since the book tells the story of a physicist, Bennett Lang, who grows up in Memphis, Tennessee and then comes to the East Coast, while Lightman grew up in Memphis and teaches physics at M.I.T. But the real reason the book feels so much like a first novel is that Good Benito is clumsily written, trying to cover too much ground, too quickly.
At the outset of the novel, Bennett is hired by Leominster College, ostensibly to teach physics but also to try to ferret out the insights of the genius physicist Scalopino, who has published nothing and yet, according to rumor, keeps scores of brilliant results in files full of near undecipherable notes.
Bennett gradually gains the trust of Scalopino and his daughter Sophie, fails nonetheless to understand the notes and convinces Scalopino to work with him on a new problem. The two of them arrive at a solution, only to discover that the same result (albeit less elegantly achieved) has been published already in a foreign journal.
End of first chapter. After that, we never hear anything about Scalopino or Sophie again; the novel switches back to Bennett's Memphis boyhood. We meet Florida, the Black housekeeper who shows Bennett more love than does his father, distant and scarred by memories of war, or his mother, prone to fainting spells, insomnia and compulsive eating. We also meet John, Bennett's best friend, with whom Bennett builds clever contraptions.
Bennett progresses through school, falling in love with algebra and studying math on his own at home. He talks with his rabbi. In high school he has an affair with a drama teacher. Then he goes to college, learns a lot of physics, befriends another physics student who turns into a drug addict, goes to graduate school, learns more physics, finishes his doctorate and marries an artist. The marriage deteriorates, and the book ends.
All this takes place in 200 short pages. The book whisks through Bennett's life, briefly introducing his family and acquaintances and leaves him off in his mid-thirties, friendless and rather boring. By that point it is difficult for the reader to care much about Bennett since, in the final part of the novel, he suggests that a colleague manufacture data, refuses to offer help to his destitute uncle, and gives up on the woman he married.
Meanwhile the narration is uninspired, surprisingly so given the grace of Lightman's writing in Einstein's Dreams. There, his use of sparse, simple language served him well allowing him to suggest possible worlds through short, carefully chosen phrases, quick touches of color, and imaginative details. In Good Benito, however, his language falls flat and his colors seem drab.
Lightman rushes from one scene to the next, so that most of his characters are caricatured, or at least underdeveloped. In this short novel, he progresses through thirty or so years; the resulting portrait comes across as a succession of incidents rather than a coherent narrative.
It is too bad that Lightman didn't stick with Scalopino and Sophie, for the first chapter seems to portend a successful (if not entirely original) intellectual mystery novel, with Scalopino as the fat, slightly revolting genius, whose nut is Lang's to crack, and Sophie as the romantic interest, a nut of a different flavor. In another novel, Lightman might have found better use for his more intriguing characters--Uncle Maury the gambler who tries to expiate himself by fixing the plumbing, Davis the aging, macho thesis adviser who bets bottles of vodka on his own conjectures.
Maybe Lightman will write such a novel, one that conveys, in the enchanting prose of Einstein's Dreams, the strange culture of all-too-human physicists--a difficult task, since Lightman's style has so far shown itself much better suited to fanciful speculation than to plot and character. But the seeds are there; they just don't bear fruit in Good Benito.