Stratospheric Climbing in 'Limitless'

In Alan Glynn's suspenseful novel, men and women toy with the possibility of chemically enhancing a person's brain power -- and chaos ensues.


Publisher: Picador
Length: 338 pages
Author: Alan Glynn
Price: $15.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2011-03

Like this reviewer, many people discovered Limitless through its movie adaptation, starring Bradley Cooper, who played Eddie Spinola, a slacker who discovered a wonder drug—MDT—that helped him to harness all of his mental powers.

The drug posed problems, though, because at certain levels it could begin to disturb one’s brain, one’s chemistry. In a creepy scene, Spinola met with his ex-wife, who had been on the pill for a while before realizing that she needed to fight her addiction. The woman, once beautiful, was now a mess, emaciated, unable to make sense of her life.

Still, Spinola felt sucked into a world of high-power deals, new clothes, late, glamorous nights, and he couldn’t stop taking the drug. As his wheelings and dealings proliferated, he made more and more terrible decisions—decisions that threatened to catch up with him, eventually. For example, he may or may not have killed a beautiful woman in a hotel room, late at night, while he was “under the influence”. And he became entangled with a Russian mobster, a man who had loaned him money, discovered his wonder drug, and developed an insatiable appetite for this drug.

My main source of pleasure in watching the movie was the fantasy of suddenly, irrevocably changing one's life. What if I, too, could whip myself into shape? No more missed deadlines, no more cramped, messy apartments, no more awkward conversations with potential dates. Just a clean, clear, relaxed path toward social and financial and professional success—stratospheric climbing.

Of course, there was also the ethical question imbedded in the story: If we can tinker with the human brain to increase human potential, should we do so?

Margaret Talbot wrote a piece for The New Yorker about high-achieving Ivy League students who were taking Adderall to improve their ability to focus ("Brain Gain", 27 April 2009). The implicit issue: Should drugs be used—abused—to help those who don’t actually need help? And how do we distinguish those who qualify for help from those who do not?

The "Brain: The Inside Story" exhibit at the Natural History Museum in New York City raises similar questions (the exhibit ends 15 August 2011). Toward the end of the exhibit, placards explain that new work on the brain includes: hooking you up to a device that will allow you to “see” a movie in your mind without actually seeing it on a screen; attaching you to a program that will translate your thoughts into printed text without requiring you to do any writing, typing, or formal “word production”; and engineering perfectly adequate brains to be something more than adequate.

The heart races when it encounters this kind of information, but also, you have to wonder: What might be some unintended side-effects?

In his novel Limitless, originally entitled The Dark Fields, Alan Glynn seems emphatically skeptical about the benefits of mind-altering drugs. In fact, he seems more skeptical than the filmmakers. Glynn’s version of Spinola depicts even more suffering than the version we see on-screen.

As the police (aware of Spinola’s possible role in a glamorous woman’s murder) bear down on Spinola, and as Spinola contemplates his life post-MDT, we get the sense that suicide is in the cards. This is an effectively dramatic and upsetting twist, because Glynn has ensured that Spinola is expansive, brooding, charismatic, trenchant, relatable... Spinola is someone you root for, even as you disapprove of many of his choices.

Readers will admire Glynn’s crisp, propulsive storytelling throughout the novel. Glynn is not particularly lyrical, but he writes in a muscular, no-nonsense style that quickly becomes addictive. For example, here Glynn describes a moment of violence in a breath-taking high-rise apartment complex:

"I widened my eyes suddenly and looked over his shoulder. When he turned to see what I was looking at, I took a deep breath and brought the carving knife around. In a single, swift movement, I drove the point of it into his belly and grabbed the back of his neck with my other hand for leverage. I pushed the knife in as hard as I could, trying to direct it upwards. I heard a deep, gurgling sound and felt his arms flailing up and down, helplessly, as though they’d been cut adrift from the rest of his body. I gave a final shove to the knife and then had to let go. It had taken a huge effort to do this much and I just staggered backwards, trying to catch my breath. Then I leant against one of the windows and watched as Gennady stood in the same position, swaying, staring at me. His mouth was open and both his hands were clasping the wooden handle of the knife—the only part of it that was still visible."

…And Glynn is similarly powerful when he describes a rare moment of human connection toward the end of the novel—a moment in which Spinola glimpses the kind of family life he might have had, if he had made other choices:

"I got out and started walking, briskly, and not in any particular direction. As I moved, I replayed the scene with Ally over and over in my mind. Her resemblance to Melissa was uncanny and the whole experience had left me stunned—blinking at infinity, shuddering in sudden, unexpected spasms of benevolence and hope."

…In both passages, Glynn relies on simple, honest observations—no need for pyrotechnics to keep a hold on the reader.

In sum: Limitless tells an engaging, diverting story, both in its cinematic and its paperback formats. The novel, especially, grants readers a chance to escape into a fully-realized fantasy world of ultimate power and startling, operatic consequences.

Glynn has found an ingenious idea for a story, and he has delivered his thoughts in a relaxed, amiable, eloquent style.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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