'Graveland' Didn't Set My Brain on Fire

by Dan Barrett

2 June 2013

Alan Glynn's most recent novel is calculated to make a good deal of easy money. He's topical, but he's also wedded to the obvious.

Connect the Dots

cover art


Alan Glynn

US: May 2013

Alan Glynn’s Limitless was a hit, both in its novel and in its movie form. Glynn writes thrillers. He’s especially interested in money and drugs. Picador seems to want to turn him into a major American name, though he is based in Ireland. Graveland and its predecessor, Bloodland, both emerged as paperback originals.

Graveland could really have just about any title. Glynn’s choice of title is generic and has no clear, compelling connection to the story he tells; in fact, I often forgot the title of the book as I was reading it. This does not bode well.

I feel I must narrate the events of the novel, though it would be easier to say that it closely resembles an episode of 24. The characters are as thin as specks of dust. Well, here goes.

Two young men are students at fictional Atherton College. They are (understandably) enraged by the recent financial crisis. Less understandably, they want to act out by assassinating various irresponsible Wall Street men.

One of the men dates an innocent young woman, named, absurdly, Lizzie Bishop. (Glynn seems not to be aware of the existence of a major American poet named Elizabeth Bishop. If he is aware, he seems not to care.)

When a siege situation erupts, Lizzie is caught in the crossfire and dies. Meanwhile, her father, Frank, has just lost a crappy job and discovers that his world is falling apart. Will he take up where Lizzie left off?

In a tangentially related plot, a journalist, Ellen, tries to help Frank, and to stay on top of the story before other journalists figure out what is going on.

And in still another subplot, Jimmy Vaughan, the immoral ruler of a corporation called Oberon, becomes addicted to an untested age-defying drug. (This drug may be related to the pill that Bradley Cooper’s character takes in Limitless—a pill that makes you much more mentally capable than you have ever been before.)

What will Jimmy do to get his hands on more medicine? And how will Jimmy respond to Ellen’s efforts to get to the bottom of Jimmy’s past, sketchy business practices?

It might be evident from this summary that the book didn’t set my brain on fire. It’s a moderately entertaining, wholly implausible way to spend a few hours. Few paragraphs exceed one or two sentences; few characters are more than stick figures. If you want a book for the beach, this is more than adequate. But if you would like a thriller that stretches the limits of the genre, and that presents believable, complicated characters, I recommend P.D. James, Donna Leon, or Ruth Rendell.

It’s worth noting that, beyond money and drugs, a subject that rivets Glynn’s attention is social media and technology. He describes a monthly publication, Parallax, that is on its way out because it hasn’t developed a catchy website. He also writes about undergrads whose fingers do a tap dance on their electronic devices.

Not coincidentally, when a character is laid off from a suburban retail job, the shop doing the firing is an electronics store.

Readers might be reminded of the films The Social Network, Side Effects, and Margin Call, whose subjects are, respectively, technology, psycho-pharmaceuticals, and financial irresponsibility. Glynn is nothing if not topical.

But will this writer be able to sustain a career by writing about such insubstantial characters? The answer is probably, sadly, yes.

Oddly enough, for me, a detail stuck out about Ellen’s trip to Atherton College. Ellen is aided by a young woman, an undergrad, who seems to develop a lesbian crush. The lesbianism is so gratuitous, it made me pause. I suddenly realized that Glynn just wanted a certain character to behave in a certain way, so he threw in the homosexual desire to make his plot machinations at least superficially logical. He’s wedded to the obvious.

Characters in his world are rarely—if ever—mysterious to one another, and they rarely behave in surprising ways. I’m not asking for Mad Men levels of psychological complexity, but an occasional moment of nuance would be nice.

In any case, if you’d like a fast-paced story that requires very little brain power, then, by all means, be Glynn’s guest.



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