Monday, February 29, 2016

Book Review: The Dark Fields

© 2001 by Alan Glynn

Re-titled Limitless when it was brought to the big screen, starring Bradley Cooper.

Limitless is one of my favorite movies of all time. I saw it out in the theaters when it came out five years ago and have seen it at least a half-dozen times since on cable and DVD. In fact, it won the “2011 Hopper Best Of” category for Best Movie, a little thing I do at the end of each year to let you all know the best and worst books, movies, and fads the Hopper has seen, read, and experienced.

So for five long years I’ve kept my eye out for the source novel, Alan Glynn’s The Dark Fields. Had no idea how it would sync up with the film. But it didn’t matter to me. The chance to get deeper into Eddie Morra’s thoughts under the influence of NZT-48 made the book a MUST for me. Back in September I bought it online and finally got around to reading it over five days this past week. (Would’ve read it sooner but I, er, misplaced it for a few months among the ten or fifteen piles of fifty or sixty books I have floating around three levels of my house …)

The premise is endlessly fascinating to me. What would you do if someone handed you a pill that increased for intelligence tenfold? Drove your IQ into four digits. Oh, and also shot your confidence through the roof, shoved your creativity into overdrive, and put an encyclopedic memory at your disposal. Would you take it? Such is the opportunity presented to down-on-his-luck struggling writer Eddie Morra.

A quick summary, from my review of April, 2011:

Lovable loser Eddie Morra is a down-on-his-luck writer. Defeated by mental blocks, his publisher threatens to call in his advance. His girlfriend / bank dumps him and his landlord itches to kick him out on the street because he can’t pay the rent. One random day sadsack bumps into his old brother-in-law – yes, the only women he’s ever loved divorced him – an unsavory character who happens to be ... a drug dealer.

Brother-in-law is hawking a new type of drug. Right off the pharmaceutical company’s experimental drug assembly line. Allegedly it enables you to use 100% of your brain, percentages based on the old wives tale we only use 20% of our brains (the figure I recall hearing ages ago was 5%). So, what the heck, there’s nothing left to lose. Just pop that experimental drug into your mouth and see what happens.

Here’s where the movie shines. The drug, known as NZT, enables you to see everything “clear.” Thirty seconds after ingestion, you have access to everything you’ve ever seen, read, heard, done. You can make the connections instantaneously. You see the big picture. Everything around you is in slow-motion, and you’re in comfortable confident overdrive. And, apparently, you have boundless energy, because, I guess, gifted with such visioneering capabilities, who would want to sleep?

The movie details Eddie’s rise to the top. Yes, he finishes his novel in four days, and it’s a revolutionary sort of work. He gets a loan from his generic neighborhood Russian mob guy and transforms $12,000 to $2.3 million in ten days trading stocks. Swarms of interesting people flock to him at cocktail parties. Connections are made. Our boy soon comes to the attention of Karl Van Loon, DeNiro’s character, a smorgasbord of corporate tycoons with shades of Trump, Bloomberg, Soros, and the cigar-chomping financiers of the 18th century. He also has to deal with the Russian mafia, and there’s a monkey wrench thrown into things when that neighborhood mobster ingests one of Eddie’s pills and becomes supersmart himself.

(The rest of the review can be found here.)

So … what did I think of the book?

Bottom line: Movie better than the book.

[Warning! Spoilers large and small …]

The writing in The Dark Fields is very, very good. It flowed, and pages turned. Exposition flawlessly transitioned to dialogue and vice versa. Great big heapings of italics, emphasizing specific words in speech the way real people talk, a grammarism I really like. About half to two-thirds of the book made it into the film, sometimes shot-for-shot and word-for-word, so I felt comfortably nostalgic, revisiting an old friend and reliving exciting times. Most of this complementarity occurs in the first half of the story, for the film’s ending is radically different from the novel’s.

As the book progresses, more and more differences show up. Carl Van Loon is essentially a secondary figure, and only became the film’s antagonist after DeNiro signed on. Van Loon’s daughter plays a part in the book as Eddie’s love interest, a somewhat boring and clichéd part that did not make the film. Dark Fields also makes a big to-do about the model Eddie may or may not have killed, fleshing out her identity as a Mexican celebrity which leads to a larger backstory of a US-Mexican crisis. The movie glosses over the global impact of this, instead using it to ratchet up the tension around Eddie getting found out and introducing the scummy lawyer subplot.

NZT-48 is called MDT-48 in the novel. The movie really took pains to create an exciting and illuminating experience on the big screen to show Eddie coming under the influence of the drug. Brighter colors, Eddie’s eyes are bluer, different camera angles and visual effects. The book can’t do this, but I was expecting some literary special effects from Glynn. Perhaps a change of writing style, a change of words used, a change to iambic pentameter, something. But despite wanting to experience MDT as I did NZT, it was not to be. In the book MDT is described as “a drug for anal retentives who want to become more anal” (as it also is in the movie), but in the novel that’s all it really appears to be. In addition to giving you an overwhelming desire to clean your apartment and buy some swankier clothes, it does makes you smarter, yes, but that’s certainly not demonstrated by Book Eddie.

Book Eddie is dumb, Stupid. I was yelling at him – as I mentally yelled at Bradley Cooper watching the film – not to make stupid mistakes, and come up with a Plan. Movie Eddie pretty much does so, at least compared to hapless Book Eddie. For example, Book Eddie fails to grasp the importance of replicating the drug and getting his own supply until there’s a dozen pages left in the book. Our printed-page hero also keeps his MDT supply (a couple hundred pills) all together in one unguarded place. He also never comes up with a decisive plan to deal with Gennady, the Russian mobster. Though Movie Eddie also failed in this regard, Book Eddie keeps saying, “I needed a plan to deal with Gennady” every freakin’ time he finishes up an encounter with him.

This guy has a four-digit IQ?

The book’s ending is a super downer. In the film Van Loon and Gennady are developed to be the baddies, especially the financier, as potentially lethal roadblocks to Eddie’s vision of creating and doing something fantastic with the world. In the book, it’s a faceless eeeevil pharmaceutical corporation that’s been using Eddie as an unwitting and ignorant participant in an illegal drug trial and ultimately sentences him to a powerless death. (Though Glynn ends the novel before poor Eddie suffers his agonizing withdrawal-induced demise.)

There were better plot twists in the movie (i.e., Hank Atwood being on NZT, the aforementioned scummy lawyer stealing the NZT supply, the whole knife guy character), though this isn’t saying that the novel didn’t have its share. There’s a particularly good one on the final page. But after initial enthusiasm, I felt The Dark Fields kinda just plodded on, with ever growing certainty, toward a sorta deus ex machina of Eddie’s epic failure.

But I think the biggest reason the book let me down is that it’s yet another example of the “you can’t cheat the system / Mother Nature / Human nature” and “no good deed goes unpunished” theme so overused in science fiction. If this is the case, why does man bother extending himself with any type of self-improvement? Oh, but – you say – The Dark Fields and Limitless is a story about a drug … and drug use, abuse, and addiction.

And I say – it isn’t. It’s about potential. Unbounded potential.

Would I have liked the book better had it not been made into a movie? In all honesty, probably. It’s still a riveting read. I enjoyed every minute with it, with the possible exception of the final twenty minutes. In the final analysis, to me at least, the movie took what was good with the book and made it better, and excised completely what was not up to, say, NZT levels.

Grade B+

PS. A minor, minor point, but the editor in me sees these things: several Britishisms yanked me momentarily out of the story, i.e. “kerb” and “cheque.” Might have been another one; if so, it didn’t make a lasting impression.

PPS. For the record, I have never watched the Limitless TV show which debuted last September. I had a feeling it would stink since I found out the main character uses the godlike potentialities of NZT to … solve crimes. Solve crimes partnered with a hot cop chick just like any other of the hundred thousand police procedurals on the tube (cf. The Mentalist, Elementary, and Numbers, just to name a few, though I think Numbers had a hot scientist chick instead of a hot cop chick).

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