Limitless, by Alan Glynn

Article published on June 21, 2011.

Limitless by Alan Glynn (formerly known as The Dark Fields before its movie adaptation) presents a tantalising prospect: would you take an experimental pill that unlocks your potential? For New-Yorker Eddie Spinola it’s a no-brainer; after a chance meeting with a brother-in-law lost in a divorce, the struggling writer acquires a supply of MDT, a drug that well… it’s hard to describe exactly what the pill does. What it doesn’t do is let Eddie fly, or give him super-strength or heat vision or any stock superhero traits, instead MDT unlocks his innate potential. And here’s where the central appeal of the book lies – Eddie is a perfectly acceptable everyman with enough universal hang-ups and distractions like laziness, regrets, and pining for a lost love, to overlook some of his more tiresome characteristics like his obligatory drug-use past.

Once Eddie starts popping MDT we’re carried along on the high with him as he first dispels his apathy in a fit of tidying and ordering his room, and then finds he can approach any task with unwavering concentration. His work dramatically increases in output and quality, with Eddie discovering he can acquire knowledge with prodigious speed. Languages are mastered in hours, and a day of reading makes him proficient in whole new areas of expertise, and with it an intense increase in his own confidence, social skills and sex-appeal. It’s a heady rush and Glynn allows the reader to hang on Eddie’s coat-tails as he quickly triumphs in his work, his love-life, his status and in making some serious cash.

Of course, in any Faustian pact the devil soon comes calling: Eddie stops eating for days without noticing, then starts losing time. Hours pass unaccountably leaving only deeply-troubling ghostly memories in their place. Eddie’s attempts to come clean are suitably horrible too; not only in the physical toll that MDT takes on his body but also in his sudden return into the drudgery of his every day existence. Cut off from his supplier, Eddie tries to track down former users of the drug, only to find his fate bleaker with each discovery.

And while the story is told as Eddie’s confession almost, and its ending seems apparent, the book still disappointed in its conclusion. The clichéd omnipotent company sidles to the foreground in the last act, hinting at a far larger macro-plot relatively untouched in the book, but is ultimately relatively inconsequential. While any moralistic tale means Eddie’s fate has a certain inevitability, our hero remains likeable throughout, more a victim than a monster, and the reviewer was left waiting for some brilliant escape that never came. For all of his augmented intellect, Eddie is unable to solve some of the conundrums he creates, in fact, he is even unable to consider a solution which is ultimately unfulfilling, because if any character could be permitted to pull off an ingenious, surprise resolution then it should be our hero.

Limitless though is a premise with wonderful potential because it appeals to a great modern fear: the phantom that follows Eddie through the whole novel isn’t the shadow of MDT, or any corporation or foe – Eddie runs from his own mediocrity, and this is the tale of how he rolls the dice to try and escape his own life. In doing so, Glynn creates a dark superhero tale grounded in a world of deadlines, pick-up bars and stock exchanges, where there is no world to be saved but everything to be had.

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