The Dark Fields
by Alan Glynn
(also available as Limitless; Picador, 2011; ISBN: 9780312428877)
If you were offered a pill that would make you smarter, more focused and infinitely more productive, would you take it? Would you bother to ask about the side effects first?
Protagonist Eddie Spinola isn’t initially told what this tiny pill will do for — or to — him, but he knocks back the MDT-48 anyway, and his life immediately becomes a thrilling (and unmanageable) roller coaster.
I’ve not seen the movie, “Limitless,” based on this book by Alan Glynn. The film previews got me interested in the story, and when I heard about how it only came to Hollywood’s attention when some movie professional found a copy of “The Dark Fields” in a bookstore bargain bin, I knew I had to seek out this title for myself.
It’s a great read.
Glynn tells an engaging, page-turning story. I was stopped in my tracks here and there by non-standard (according to U.S. English) spellings and punctuation conventions — Glynn lives in Ireland — but I was also deeply impressed by the sheer amount of research the author must have done in the preparation and writing of this novel. He goes into deep detail as he weaves all manner of topics into his story — from conversational Italian and the principles of 20th-century design to the intricacies of day-trading on the stock market and broadband media corporate mergers. Glynn definitely did his homework, and his story is all the better for it.
But throughout the book, the question remains: If you had such a drug available, what would you do?
I was immediately — and frequently — reminded of an exhibit on the brain I saw last December at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Toward the end of the extensive exhibit — full of information about the brain’s anatomy and biochemistry, evolution, how we learn and process information and languages, etc. — there was a smaller section about the future of brain research. One display panel talked about advances in pharmacology allowing us to enhance natural abilities and cognitive functions, sort of like steroids for the brain. The exhibit posed a tantalizing and troubling question for conversation: if such a pill were available — to make you, say, ten times smarter than you are now, would you take it?
Eddie Spinola’s story in “The Dark Fields” may serve as a cautionary tale of the dangers of untested and unregulated neuropsychopharmacology — that’s not really a spoiler, since you know from the very first page that Eddie’s in trouble — but I also wonder if a drug like MDT-48 were truly safe, what people might be able to do with (or on) it. Maybe Eddie’s problem was that he focused solely on his own gain, rather than trying to make the world a better place, and that the drug didn’t and couldn’t help him resolve the feelings of unworthiness that lay at his core.
(I’m also steering clear of the obvious theme of addition here . . . )
I have no doubt that there will be — or may already be — Eddie Spinolas out in the world as the quiet race for the perfect smart drug continues. I’ve deliberately not answered the central question of the book — what would I do? — in this space, because that’s a much longer and larger conversation. And because, frankly, I’m not sure.