Book Review: The Dark Fields

The Dark Fields (or Limitless) is a great high-concept, quasi-literary thriller. The writing throughout is fast paced and highly detailed, each of the characters are well drawn, and the plot was gripping from start to finish. For my money, there's not much more that you could ask for from a book.

The gist of the novel is that Eddie Spinola, a struggling freelance writer, begins taking the super-smart drug MDT after stumbling onto a stash of the pills supplied by his recently murdered ex-brother in law. Once Eddie takes the pills, he becomes super-productive, cleaning his apartment, finishing his latest manuscript, and learning new languages and how to play piano in the space of a few days. Enthralled with his newfound brilliance, Eddie takes two to three pills a day and begins making a killing on the market as a day trader. Along the way he takes a $100,000 loan from, and writes a screenplay treatment for, the Russian mafia, begins suffering from periodic blackouts, and possibly murders the wife of a famous Mexican painter.

Surely, you knew there'd be a drawbacks to this experimental wonder-drug.

Naturally, Eddie decides to get off MDT, but doing so unleashes more complications. Stopping the drug, he soon finds, causes debilitating headaches, nausea, and other flu-like symptom that eventually lead to death. Not to mention it's kind of difficult to do his new job as the broker for a multi-million-dollar media conglomerate merger without the help of those little wonder pills.

OK, you can see where this is going in a hurry, but what author Alan Glynn does so effectively here is make you wish Eddie would go back on the drugs even when you know it will only make things worse. This is a neat trick that forces the reader sympathize with the addict. Because we spend so much time with Eddie, experiencing his life on and off MDT moment by moment, we feel his desire for the drug viscerally, even as we--like him--know it can't really solve his problems. This simultaneous desire for and fear of the drug, coupled with the hope that everything can turn out right with just a little more MDT, is the emotional heart of the novel. Like Eddie, we know that throwing more MDT at the problem would be like trying to put out a fire with a bucket of gasoline, but also like him we can't help make that irrational choice. By the end then, the reader becomes complicit in Eddie's eventual downfall, which makes the final act all the more powerful.

Published in 2001, the book also asks questions about brain chemistry and identity that are all the more relevant a decade later. As Eddie alternately unravels and pulls himself back together off and on the drug, The Dark Fields prompts you to wonder who we truly are? Do we have an identity independent of our brain chemistry? When are we responsible for the choices our brain makes? Do our mental limitations truly hold us back, or do they rather allow us to be who we truly are?

This may not have been intended, but Eddie's choice to dedicate his superhuman abilities to beating the market also made an impression on me early in the book. It's interesting--yet wholly believable--that after discovering he could learn musical instruments, new languages, and just about anything else in just a day, Eddie chose to dedicate his new abilities to the market--a complex but ultimately empty skill, whose only product is financial reward.

For my money, this says something about where we've come in the 21st century. I think it's safe to say that today's best minds are often, like Eddie, drawn to the wold of finance because there is no other field that yields such quick financial gains. And, while the world of finance plays a critical role in the world economy, you can't help but wonder about the effect this intellectual drain has on other fields. How many great inventors, artists and doctors have we lost--like Eddie--to the lure of money?

In Dark Fields, Eddie realizes far too late that he'd be best off if he dedicated his amplified intelligence and drive toward creating a sustainable supply of the very thing that allows him to be successful. As I closed the book, I couldn't help but feel that we might be making the same mistake.

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