St. Martin’s, 1995, 228 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-97702-6
Somewhere on this very planet Earth a writer is staring at an empty wall. He wants to write a novel that will comment on the human condition. Suddenly, a flash of genius strikes! He will write a novel about an alien visiting Earth! This will allow him to highlight the folly of our existence! The perfect stranger will be the perfect detached observer! Egawd!
This writer must be stopped. Sedated. Convinced to write something else. Or, at the very least, forced to watch all of Star Trek’s episodes that focused on Spock or Data’s quest to fit in with humans. Heck, make him watch a marathon of ALF, STARMAN and a bunch of cheap “What is it to be human” sci-fi films. He deserves it.
While you’re at it, you might as well slip him the 2001 train-wreck K-PAX, starring Jeff “STARMAN” Bridges and Kevin “Oscar-baiting” Spacey. It’s a dull, saccharine, vaguely offensive excuse for a science-fiction movie, but fortunately the book is a bit better.
Not by much, but it’s better.
A quick recap, for anyone lucky enough to have been unconscious when the publicity blitz for K-PAX was unleashed upon America: The story begins as a psychiatrist is asked to take a look at a very curious case: A man called Prot (the book always has “Prot” in lower-case, but we won’t have any of that particular nonsense in this review) who think he’s an alien. Prot knows things he’s not supposed to, and appear able to do things he shouldn’t be able to do. Hm. Our psychiatrist isn’t convinced, and digs deeper. A different story emerges, the sad tale of a man driven to madness by terrible events.
So, ta-dum-dum: is Prot truly an alien, or simply someone with an alternate personality? Well, what do you think? The film’s single biggest failing was that it tried having it both ways, with unsolvable problems whenever one privileged one solution over another. One of the many reasons why K-Pax is better than the filmed adaptation is how the book would rather commit to a science-fiction explanation with the slight possibility of a rational escape route. This makes the book far more honest and satisfying: there’s no bait-and-switch at the very end. It also helps that the whole “Prot’s true identity” subplot is kept as, indeed, a subplot and not a major portion of the third act. In K-PAX, Jeff Bridge’s character himself flies around the country to uncover the rational mystery, whereas his novel counterpart simply gives the job to someone else, who reports on her findings in the epilogue, well after Prot’s “departure”.
(There one more thing: This movie tie-in edition of the novel also features the first chapter from the sequel to K-Pax. That pretty much settles the whole business, doesn’t it?)
In short, K-Pax doesn’t think its audience is a bunch of total morons. Maybe partial morons though, especially whenever we get to hear details about K-Pax’s biology (implausible; unsustainable; ridiculous from an ecosystematician’s point of view). The carefully detailed first-person narrative is thankfully drenched with authenticity, at least from the operational psychiatry angle. Finally, the novel moves with a certain amount of efficiency, not wasting our time as much as the g’damned film did though lens flare effects and ridiculously overplayed “dramatic” scenes.
In short, you could say that the book is better than the movie simply because I didn’t dislike it as much. That would be harsh (I still found some entertainment reading the novel) but not completely untrue.
In the meantime, though, if you know of an author planning an alien-visits-Earth novel… it’s been done before, folks.