Terrifyingly soon, Bill is mad, homeless, beaten and experimented on by comically evil doctors. He recovers and reunites with his family, but inexorably, mysterious paralysis ensues. Doctors try to diagnose him. Coworkers offer empty condolences and plot to steal his fast-track job. His wife seeks consolation with a passionate virtual lover on the Internet, a professor she's never met in the flesh. His teenage son triumphantly hacks into AOL's Plato Online, and Bill's last days are counterpointed with the trial of Socrates and his troubled, rich inquisitor Anytus. Instead of the real story, we get a second shimmering Lightman fable. Anytus's strife with his rebel son, a Socrates supporter, parallels Bill's grief as his son is distanced from him by illness.
Though I felt glimmerings of understanding from time to time, I never did fully figure out exactly what the Socrates story and Bill's decline have to say about each other, nor what Bill's paralysis says about modern times. I implore a smarter reader to explain it to me in the customer comments below. But I can tell you that every character is resonant, and every sensory particular is exquisitely precise, as in Lightman's biggest hit, the Italo Calvino pastiche Einstein's Dreams. --Tim Appelo