Like most people (I imagine), I was first introduced to K-Pax via the 2001 film of the same name starring Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges. I hadn’t even realized until some time later that it was based upon a 1995 novel by Gene Brewer. Though I generally hate comparing books and movies, I will do so to a limited extent here because I think that the movie highlights some of the book’s failings.
If you aren’t familiar with the plot from either medium, K-Pax is the story of “prot” (pronounced “prOHt” and spelled all lowercase), a patient at the Manhattan Psychiatric Institute, under the care of a doctor with the same name as the author (though it’s “Mark Powell” in the film). Prot (hereinafter capitalized for ease of recognition) believes he is from the planet K-Pax, in the constellation Lyra. He is a short, quiet man who has the ability to see ultraviolet light (which normal humans cannot do), which he attributes to the peculiar light conditions on his planet (which is in a perpetual state of twilight). He is also a genius, having an incredible knowledge of astrophysics, which he attributes to mere familiarity with his part of the solar system.
Gene Brewer believes that Prot is a convincing case of MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder), and eventually comes to believe that Prot is the currently-dominant personality inside one Robert Porter, a man whose wife and daughter were killed five years ago, and was presumed dead after vanishing into a river. Many of the clues point to this scenario, though there are the outlying data about Prot that makes Dr. Brewer (and, by extension, the reader) wondering: there is the genius-level intellect, for instance, and the opthamological curiosity of his ability to see ultraviolet light.
When I saw the movie several years ago, it seemed as though it walked a fine line between making either scenario—Prot as psychologically-disturbed man or Prot as bona fide alien—a foregone conclusion. Though our logical minds inevitably agree with Dr. Brewer/Powell’s diagnosis, and his hesitant rejection of the idea that Robert Porter is somehow hosting the persona of a real space alien, we take a particular delight in the ambiguity, and the sliver of possibility that Prot and K-PAX are real. I didn’t get that some sense from the book, in which the doctor seemed more confident of his diagnosis, less conflicted than Jeff Bridges, and there were fewer odd, unexplainable events attached to Prot/Robert’s time in the facility. It seems like a small change, but it makes a lot of difference, as the first is a pseudo-science-fictional story about a psychiatric patient who may be an alien, and the second is a story about an ill man’s time in a psychiatric ward. See the difference?
Psychologically-speaking, the locus of Brewer’s construction of Prot is his descriptions of his home planet, as well as its societal structure. It is a sort of egalitarian paradise, with no class conflict or hierarchies or proletariats. It is also home to virtually no familial structures; after birth, a K-Paxian is raised communally, drifting from place to place, and without the benefit of institutions of learning as we would know them. If Prot really is Robert Porter, K-Pax would seem to offer the antithesis of his life on earth, namely one marked by familial obligation and an inescapable role in a stratified culture. And, if Prot’s family was indeed the victim of a terrible crime, it makes a twisted sort of sense that on K-PAX, there is not only no murder or violence, but there would be no punishment is such a crime hypothetically occurred.
I admit to being curious how Brewer managed to write sequels (there are another three), but I found the original somewhat underwhelming in book form; this was a story that simply required the acting talents of Spacey and Bridges to make it come alive. Otherwise, the book sort of limps along, hampered by less-than-wonderful characters and a story that makes a more interesting thought experiment than a novel.