Stratospheric Climbing in ‘Limitless’

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.

RATING 8 / 10