Altered States: A Novel Hardcover – May 1978
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Altered States is the ultimate horror story, love story, novel of exploration, and a stunning entertainment by one of the world's foremost writers a truly astounding trip into the unknown.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.]
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.
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?
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.)
Trying to keep in mind when it was written (late 70s), I worked hard not to want to slap Emily - Jessup's love interest. I also thought the ending of the book which suddenly put the focus back on the "luuuuvvvv" story was a mite sappy and grossly written. No subtlety here at all. "The final truth of all things is that there is no final truth! Truth is the illusion! Life is the only substance we have! I am truth; it is God that is fiction! This is real! You and me sitting here in this room! That is real! That is substance! That is the only truth there is!"
For a literary device, Emily's inability to resist Jessup and, ultimately, to, as he says, become his "redeemer" is boiler-plate application of the feminine to the holy and the reward for unwavering support. I get that. I can (and have done so) write a thesis about this device.
Nonetheless, it still makes me a little nauseous. I was more optimistic about Emily when, during the early part of the book, she recognized the unhealthy aspect of her devotion to Jessup. I also was a little impressed with Jessup's accurate self-evaluation. These things, however, are good only when acted upon. Simply recognizing an issue and not doing anything about it seems even worse, IMO, than not recognizing it at all.
All in all, it was an interesting little book. I'm glad I read it. The writing is very uneven and slow-going for the first couple of chapters. Picks up mid-way which made the reading experience more pleasurable. I thought Chayefsky's attempt to be specific about work being done by various people in various labs and universities sounded as if he was copy/pasting from notes taken during his preparation for the book. I thought his 'science speak' fairly accurate but done in such a way that it revealed his intent of bolstering scientific integrity which, ironically, had the reverse effect (with me.)
Interestingly, Chayefsky's other works (especially "Marty") were so fabulous at revealing the humanity of his characters that it was a profound disappointment to me find Altered States was devoid of his talent in that area. The book read, to me, as if it were the novelization of a movie. One of the few times where I thought a film version would be superior to the written version.