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Altered States: A Novel [Hardcover]

Paddy Chayefsky

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184 pages of excellent text.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  13 reviews
28 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating story -- flawed storytelling June 29 2008
By DCM - Published on Amazon.com
I've always greatly enjoyed the Altered States movie. (Well, except for its preposterous ending, which I won't reveal here.)

Recently, I read Paddy Chayefsky's original novel -- which has been out-of-print for some time -- and thought I'd share my thoughts.

The following criticisms might seem harsh, so I should note that I actually did enjoy reading the novel. (Well, except, of course, for its equally preposterous ending...)

Anyway, Altered States was Chayefsky's first and last novel. He wrote it back in the late 70s after enjoying great success and acclaim as both a playwright and screenwriter. [The man won three Academy Awards!]

Unfortunately, the novel suffers from many of the same problems shared by first-time novelists. [I should know. I finished my first novel recently and made many of these same mistakes.]

(1) Dialog.

The characters are always making "speeches" -- instead of simply saying what's on their mind.

Chayefsky was originally a playwright. Unfortunately, his dialog -- both in the novel and in his subsequent screenplay -- reads like theatrical dialog. It's needlessly long-winded.

Theater is primarily a verbal medium and so audiences accept that characters on stage will indulge in lengthy oration. The dialog of novels, however, can and should be far more efficient. Screenplays, too.

Also, there are whole paragraphs worth of dialog where -- and I'm not exaggerating -- *every* single line of dialog ends in an exclamation point! Sheesh.

(2) Omniscient Narration.

Much of the story is written from the point-of-view (POV) of an omniscient narrator, rather than from the POV of individual characters.

It's usually far better to write thrillers in a character-based POV, since that allows the reader to live vicariously through the characters, making the story far more compelling.

Also, although most scenes are properly narrated as if the events are happening "now," others are oddly written as if the narrator is recalling the events of the story from some vantage point months or years later. This is confusing.

(3) Exposition.

The story is buried under a mountain of narrative exposition. At times, stretches of pure exposition -- again provided by the omniscient narrator -- run on for pages.

Stories are, of course, far more compelling when exposition is avoided, and information is instead conveyed through the dialog, thoughts and actions of the characters.

All too often, events that could easily have been presented as "live" scenes were needlessly described via omniscient narration. Moreover, thoughts that could easily have been spoken by the characters were also needlessly set forth via omniscient narration.

The result is that much of the book is simply tedious.

[To his credit, when Chayefsky wrote his screenplay for Altered States, he did an excellent job of converting much of the narrative exposition into actual scenes. One wonders why he didn't bother to do that within the novel itself.]

(4) Too Much Scientific Detail

Chayefsky spent two years researching the science behind the novel. Unfortunately, he jammed every last bit of research into the novel (again mostly via dull exposition.)

So, at times, the novel reads like an encyclopedia entry, rather than a thrilling story.

(5) Run-on Paragraphs.

Apparently, Chayefsky had trouble finding the carriage return on his typewriter. Individual paragraphs often run well over a page long.

[And that's in the hardbound edition. Within his original typed manuscript, individual paragraphs must have run on for three or four pages. I pity the editor who had to read that!]


Anywho, despite these flaws, the underlying story is still fascinating.

It's a shame, though, that the editor didn't convince Chayefsky to rework the novel to fix these flaws. [I suspect that, given Chayefsky's great clout at the time, no one dared tell him the novel was a mess.]

Had the novel been better written, it might still be in print after all these years.

By the way, Paddy Chayefsky died in 1981 after a long and remarkable career. Rest in peace. You gave us some great stories.


P.S. There's an interesting anecdote about the Altered States script/movie. Chayefsky had an unprecedented clause in his contract requiring that the movie be shot exactly according to his script -- scene-by-scene, line-by-line.

Ken Russell, the director, did just that. Still, Chayefsky demanded that his name be taken off the movie. The screenplay is instead credited to "Sidney Aaron."

The reason? Chayefsky apparently wanted all the long speeches of the script to be spoken very deliberately by the actors, so the audience could mull them over. He hated the fact that Russell had the actors race through the dialog.

I think, though, that Russell was right. Otherwise, the movie would simply have been too long and tedious. Russell's direction injected much-needed energy into what was a very "talky" script.

No, the main flaw in the movie was *not* the performance of the actors, *nor* the decisions of the director; the problem was that awful ending.

Did I mention I didn't like the ending?
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly astounding trip to the unknown. Aug. 27 2001
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Altered States is the ultimate horror story-the story of one young scientist's terrifying experiment to find the origins of consciousness. Entombed in an isolation tank, fed with a powerful hallucinogenic drug, he experiences finally the supreme moment of terror that is the beginning of life. Altered States is a love story-the story of a man who learns that love is the greatest of all acts of faith. Altered States is a novel of exploration-of other states of consciousness, the unimaginable kingdoms of the mind. For the scientist, like the novelist, there are the new frontiers of truth beyond which anything can happen...
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "the body slowly subsides from the turbulence of rational awareness" May 16 2012
By Rilke - Published on Amazon.com
From page 19 of Altered States

"The fact is, you ought to try a trip in the tank sometime."


"We've got another trip right down your alley. You program yourself back through collapsing veils of time into the fossilized bones of a protohuman creature, back into Pleistocene space. You can go hunkering along the savannas of primeval Africa."

"Fantastic," murmured Emily.

"There's method to it, you know. It isn't just freaking out. The first half hour, sometimes an hour, you spend achieving a state of suspension. You let your body unfold into the water, finding your moment of gravitylessness, feeling your body separate from the consciousness of the mind so that your body becomes a separate consciousness in itself and the consciousness of the body slowly subsides from the turbulence of rational awareness, until the silence is utterly soundless and the darkness utterly black and the sensed confinement of the wooden walls around you is spaceless and time disappears and all is one. This is a moment of total centeredneess, lacking intelligence or will and consisting of nothing but essence. You're in the deepest theta you'll ever be in."

"F...(swearword)fantastic," said Emily.

The above is only page 19 of 205 all to short non-stop Odyssey of language seeking, conjuring what we dare to try to know. And it is so very entertaining at the same time.It will leave you breathless and wondering about the possibilities of everything that ever was or ever can be in the universe. It is the kind of book that takes you completely out of yourself and then brings you back to a more human self. I can't tell the ending. It will blow you away. 400 million bazilloion stars!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing Oct. 3 2010
By Michael P. McCullough - Published on Amazon.com
I was watching a movie on cable which was written / directed / starring Jeff Garlin called *Somebody to Eat Cheese With* wherein Jeff talks a lot about Paddy Chayefsky stating he was one our greatest writers, etc., and I began thinking about Paddy Chayefsky. I was familiar with his screenplays and have seen the movies made from his screenplays (including *Altered States* which I saw back when it was released); but when I looked him up on wiki and saw that he had written a single novel (this one) I made a beeline for the library.

Well - it really wasn't very good. I hate to say this but it was well conceived but poorly written. The characters don't speak in dialogue they spout manifestos. And, as one of the Amazon reviewers points out, they often speak in page long paragraphs where every sentence ends with an exclamation point.

I normally like the book a movie is based on better than the film but in this case it is the other way around: skip the book and rent the DVD.

(BTW, the aforementioned Jeff Garlin movie was pretty good, in a kooky, low budget sort of way.)
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As great as the movie March 18 2014
By Spots - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I read the the negative reviews and thought this might be a good example of bad writing, so I got a copy from the library. I should have known better--there's a reason he has so many awards. It was direct, completely clear, and very easy to read. I thoroughly enjoyed it, enough that I just bought a copy for myself. It's a great example of clean, uncluttered science fiction. And since he wrote the screenplay and apparently successfully defended it during production, you'll recognize most of the dialogue from the movie.

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