Alan is devoted to his mother.  His father died while he was still a teenager.  Mother and son became very close, always there for each other.  Alice was wise and understanding and did everything she could for him, but she could help him in the one area he needed; she could not set him free to learn about relationships with women.  He was naive; he just didn’t know how to be.  He just wasn’t equipped to deal with Sarah.  He became obsessed with her instead. 

Sarah was beautiful, charismatic and totally unavailable.  She avoided any emotional intimacy, any real conversation.  She could never commit to a man but she enjoyed the seductive power that she could exert over them.  They, in their turn, were fascinated by her;  they longed to possess her, and although she might permit an exciting physical intimacy to those she felt safe with, they could never know her emotionally.  And so it was that she allowed the naively polite Alan to consort with her in a brief relationship of silent passion.   For Alan, their relationship contained the toxic ingredients of addiction; sexual gratification and emotional abstinence.  He longed to know her, to have a proper relationship with her, but she refused to make arrangements to see him and was frequently absent from her flat.  And so he became hooked.  For Sarah it had the dangerous excitement of sadism.   

Frustrated and hurt by Sarah’s behaviour  and in weakened state of illness he allows himself to become looked after by Angela, who is one of Sarah’s acolyte’s and has pursued him relentlessly.  Angela loves the fantasy of marriage and children, but cannot face the realities and responsibilities.   She is scared of men, frightened of their passions.  She would rather avoid the whole messy, violent business of sex.  She needs  Alan to protect her from the dangers of the world, to look after her like a child – so she takes the opportunity to look after him.  Nevertheless they get married and soon she is pregnant. 

Then Sarah turns up again unexpectedly.   Alan is thrown off balance and pursues her to Paris, but she doesn’t take him seriously and does not keep his assignation.  While away, his friend and partner, Brian, calls; Angela has had a fall and gone into premature labour.  She has lost their baby and is in a state of shock, unable to cope.   She blames Alan for everything and refuses to leave her bed.  Jennie, fragile and so needy of love,  comes in every day to care for her, but she shows no sign of getting better. Alan tells Jennie not to come again whereupon Angela declines and takes an overdose of antidepressants and dies. 

Alan feels guilty and becomes depressed.  It takes him years before he feels strong enough to relinquish his preoccupation with Sarah.  He realises he is not equipped for a stable relationship with a woman and lives a solitary though not unhappy existence in London and Switzerland.   He never sees Sarah again. 

This is Anita Brookner at her best.  She has a deep understanding of the fragile and the lonely.  Her thoughtful prose explores what it means to lead a solitary life, the compensations and the pain of it.  ‘Altered States’ (1996), like most of her novels, is a skilful take on the psychological impact of inadequate socialisation, a territory she knows well.  Each of the three major characters,  Alan, Sarah and Angela, have not been able to grow up.  Alan is socially naive and can neither play the part of lover or husband.  Angela is like the anorexic who can’t face the responsibilities of marriage and ultimately reverts to the passive dependency of childhood.   Sarah is forever evasive of the reality of an adult relationship, but enjoys the power and drama of endless flirtation.  Each has been damaged by a controlling and in  varying degrees emotionally abstinent parent    

Altered States is a book of our time.  We live in a narcissistic society; in which many children have their material needs, food and diversions and toys, supplied in abundance but suffer deprivation of proper emotional communication.  Television and computer games do not equip kids or social responsibilities; they grow up acutely conscious of their own needs and finding it difficult to make and keep relationships.   Thirty five per cent of people living in Britain in 2010 live by themselves.  This figure has continued to rise year on year since the eighties as marriage as continued  to decline and fail and more and more children end up being brought up by a lone parent.  This may look normal.  Indeed it is, but the damage runs deep and threatens the stability of society.  Psychotherapy, these days, is largely conducted to help people cope with the pain and trauma of a narcissistic personality.

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