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An Excerpt from Limitless: Part III

Mar 17, 2011 in Books, Film

In 2002, Alan Glynn wrote the celebrated suspense novel The Dark Fields. On March 18, The Dark Fields will come to theaters as the film Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro and Abbie Cornish.  Below is the final installment in our three-part series excerpting the book (generously provided by Picador from their Limitless movie tie-in edition), accompanied by stills from the film. Limitless, the author’s cut.

Missed Part 1? Part 2? Read them first.

3

Outside on the street it was noticeably cooler than it had been. It was also noticeably darker, though that sparkling third dimension, the city at night, was just beginning to shimmer into focus all around me. It was noticeably busier, too—a typical late afternoon on Sixth Ave, with its heavy flow uptown out of the West Village of cars and yellow cabs and buses. The evacuation of offices was underway as well, everybody tired, irritable, in a hurry, darting up and down out of subway stations.

What was really noticeable, though, as I made my way through the traffic and over to Tenth Street, was just how quickly Vernon’s pill—whatever the hell it was—appeared to be taking effect.

I had registered something almost as soon as I left the bar. It was the merest shift in perception, barely a flicker, but as I walked along the five blocks to Avenue A it gathered in intensity, and I became acutely focused on everything around me—on minute changes in the light, on the traffic crawling by to my left, on people coming at me from the other direction and then flitting past. I noticed their clothes, heard snatches of their conversations, caught glimpses of their faces. I was picking up on everything, but not in any heighted, druggy way. Rather it all seemed quite natural, and after a while—after only maybe two or three blocks—I began to feel as if I’d been running, working out, pushing myself to some ecstatic physical limit. At the same time, however, I knew that what I was feeling couldn’t be natural because if I had been running I would be out of breath, I would be leaning against a wall and panting, gasping for someone to call an ambulance. Running? Shit, when was the last time I’d done that? I don’t think I’d run any distance at all at any time over the last fifteen years, never had occasion to, and yet that’s how I felt—no head stuff, or buzz, or tingling, or racing heart, or paranoia, no particular awareness of pleasure, I simply felt alert and well. Certainly not like I’d just had two whiskey sours, and three or four cigarettes, and a cheeseburger and fries at lunchtime in my local diner—not to mention all the other unhealthy options I’d ever taken, options flicking backwards now through my life like a greasy deck of cards.

And then in the space of what, eight, ten minutes, I am suddenly healthy?

I don’t think so.

It’s true that I respond pretty quickly to drugs—everyday medicines included, be it aspirin or paracetamol or whatever. I know straightaway when something’s in my system, and I go all the way with it. For instance, if it says on a packet “may cause drowsiness’, then that usually means I’ll find myself slipping into something like a mild coma. Even at college I was always first out of the hatch with hallucinogenics, always the first one to come up, to detect those subtle, rippling shifts in color and texture. But this was something else again, this was a rapid chemical reaction unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

By the time I reached the steps outside my building, in fact, I strongly suspected that whatever I’d ingested was already close to operating at full tilt.

*

I entered the building and walked up to the third floor, passing buggies and bicycles and cardboard boxes on the way. I didn’t meet anybody on the stairs, and I’m not sure just how I would have reacted if I had, but neither did I detect in myself any sense of wanting to avoid people.

I got to the door of my one-bedroom apartment and fumbled for the key—fumbled because suddenly the idea of avoiding people, or of not avoiding people, or of even having to consider the question one way or the other, was making me feel apprehensive, and vulnerable. It also occurred to me for the first time that I had no idea how this situation was going to develop, and that potentially it could develop in any direction. Then I was thinking to myself, oh shit, if something weird happens here, if anything goes wrong, if bad stuff happens, if things get ugly . . .

But I stopped myself short and stood motionless for a while, staring at the brass inset on the door with my name on it. I tried to gauge how I was reacting to all of this, tried to calibrate it in some way, and I decided pretty quickly that it wasn’t the drug at all, it was me. I was just panicking. Like an idiot.

I took a deep breath, put the key in the lock and opened the door. I flicked on the light-switch and gazed in for a few seconds, gazed in at the cosy, familiar, slightly cramped living space I’d occupied for more than six years. But in the course of those few seconds something in my perception of the room must have shifted, because all of a sudden it felt unfamiliar, too cramped, a little alien even, and certainly not a place that was very conducive to work.

I stepped inside and closed the door behind me.

Then, with my jacket barely off and draped on a chair, I found myself taking some books down from a shelf above the stereo system—a shelf where they didn’t belong—and putting them on to another shelf, one where they did belong. Next, I was surveying the room, feeling edgy, impatient, dissatisfied about something—though what exactly I didn’t know. I soon realized that I was looking for a starting point, and I eventually found one in my collection of nearly four hundred classical and jazz CDs, which were strewn everywhere about the apartment, some out of their cases, and of course in no particular order.

I alphabetized them.

In one go, in one uninterrupted burst. I gathered them all on to the floor in the middle of the room, divided them into two separate piles, each of which I then subdivided into further categories, such as swing, be-bop, fusion, baroque, opera and so on. I then put each category into alphabetical order. Hampton, Hawkins, Herman. Schubert, Schumann, Smetana. When that was done I realized that there was nowhere for them all to fit, no one place that would hold four hundred CDs, so I set about re-arranging the furniture.

I moved my desk over to the other side of the room, creating a whole new storage area where I could put boxes of papers that had previously occupied shelf space. I then used this space to house the CDs. Next, I repositioned various free-standing items, a small table I used as a dining area, a chest of drawers, the TV and VCR unit. After that, I reshelved all of my books, weeding out about a hundred and fifty: cheap-edition crime, horror and science-fiction novels that I would never read again and could easily get rid of. These I put into two black plastic bags, which I got from a cupboard out in the hallway. Then I took another bag and started going through all of the papers on my desk, and in the drawers of the desk. I was fairly ruthless and threw out things I’d been keeping for no good reason, stuff that if I died my unfortunate executor would have no hesitation in throwing out either, because what was he going to do with it . . . what was he going to do with old love letters, pay slips, gas and electric bills, yellowed typescripts of abandoned articles, instruction manuals for consumer durables I no longer possessed, holiday brochures the holidays of which I hadn’t gone on . . . Jesus, it occurred to me—as I stuffed all of this garbage into a bag—the shit we leave behind us for other people to sort out. Not that I had any intention of dying, of course, but I did have this overwhelming impulse to reduce the clutter in my apartment. And in my life too, I suppose, because I then set about organizing my work materials—folders full of press cuttings, illustrated books, slides, computer files—the underlying idea being to get the project moving in order to get it finished, and finished in order to make room for something else, something more ambitious maybe.

When my desk was all tidied up, I decided to go into the kitchen for a glass of water. I was thirsty and hadn’t had anything to drink since I got in. It didn’t occur to me at that point that I rarely drank water. In fact, it didn’t occur to me at that point that the whole setup was odd—odd that the kitchen hadn’t been my first port of call on arriving home, odd that there wasn’t already a can of beer in my hand.

But neither did it occur to me as odd that on my way across the living-room floor I should stop briefly to re-align the couch and the armchair.

Anyway, when I pushed the kitchen door open and switched on the light, my heart sank. The kitchen was long and narrow, with old-style Formica-and-chrome cupboards and a big refrigerator at the back. Every available space, including the sink, was covered with dishes and dirty pots and empty milk cartons and cereal boxes and crushed beer cans. I hesitated for about two seconds and then got down to the job of cleaning it all up.

As I was putting the last scrubbed pot away I glanced at my watch and saw what time it was. I felt like I hadn’t been home that long —maybe what, thirty, forty minutes?—but I now realized that I’d actually been back here in the apartment, and working busily, for over three and a half hours. I looked around the kitchen, barely recognizing it any more. Then, feeling increasingly disoriented, I wandered back into the living-room and stood gazing in shock at the extent of the transformation I’d wrought there, too.

And something else—in the whole three and a half hours I’d been back I hadn’t smoked a single cigarette, which was unheard of for me.

I went over to the chair where I’d left my jacket. I took out the pack of Camels from the side pocket and held it in my hand to look at. The familiar pack, with the eponymous desert beast in profile, suddenly seemed small, shrunken, unconnected to me. It didn’t feel like something I lived with every day, didn’t feel like a virtual extension of myself, and that’s when things really started seeming odd, because this was already the longest period of my waking life, probably since the late 1970s, that I had gone without a cigarette—and I still, as yet, had absolutely no desire to smoke. I hadn’t eaten anything either, since lunchtime. Or pissed. It was all very weird.

I put the pack of cigarettes back where I’d found them and just stood there, staring down at my jacket.

I was confused, because there was no doubt that I was “up’ on whatever Vernon had given me, but I couldn’t get a handle on what kind of a hit it was supposed to be. I had been abstemious and had tidied my apartment, OK—but what was that all about?

I turned around, went over to the couch and sat down very slowly. The thing is, I felt normal . . . but that didn’t really count, did it, because I was a natural slob so my behavior, to say the least of it, was clearly uncharacteristic. I mean, what was this—a drug for people who wanted to be more anal-retentive? I tried to remember if I’d heard of anything like it before, or maybe read about it, but nothing came to mind and after a couple of minutes I decided to stretch out on the couch. I put my feet on the armrest at the far end and burrowed my head in against a cushion, thinking that perhaps I could take this thing in some other direction, shift the parameters, float a little. Almost immediately, however, I began to detect something—a tense, prickly sensation, an acute feeling of discomfort. I swung my legs back off the couch at once, and stood up.

Apparently, I had to keep busy.

Navigating the choppy waters of an unknown, unpredictable and more often than not proscribed chemical substance was an experience I hadn’t had in a long time, not since the distant, bizarre days of the mid-1980s, and I was sorry now that I had so casually—and stupidly—allowed myself open to it again.

I paced back and forth for a bit, and then went over to the desk and sat down in the swivel-chair. I looked at some papers relating to a telecommunications training manual I was copywriting, but it was tedious stuff and not really what I wanted to be thinking about right now.

I paused, and swiveled around in the chair to survey the room. Everywhere my eyes rested there were reminders of my book project for Kerr & Dexter—illustrated tomes, boxes of slides, piles of magazines, a photograph of Aldous Huxley pinned to a noticeboard on the wall.

Turning On: From Haight-Ashbury to Silicon Valley

Although I was fairly skeptical about anything Vernon Gant might have to say, he had been adamant that the pill would help me overcome any creative problems I was having, so I thought, OK, why not try focusing some attention on the book—at least for a while anyway?

I switched on the computer.

Mark Sutton, my superior at K & D, had thrown me the proposal about three months before and I’d been tossing the idea around ever since—circling over it, talking it up to friends, pretending to be doing it, but looking at the notes I’d made on the computer, I realized for the first time just how little actual work on it I’d done. I had lots of other work to do, proof-reading, copywriting, and I was busy, sure, but on the other hand this was exactly the kind of work I’d been nagging Sutton for since I’d started with K & D in 1994—something substantial, something with my name on it. I saw now, however, that I was in serious danger of blowing it. To do the job properly, I was going to have to write a ten-thousand-word introduction and about another ten to fifteen-thousand words in extensive captions, but as of now, judging by these notes, it was clear that I had only the vaguest notions about what I wanted to say.

I had accumulated plenty of research material, though—biographies of Raymond Loewy, Timothy Leary, Steve Jobs, political and economic studies, design source-books for everything from fabrics to advertising to album-covers to posters to industrial products—but how much of it had I actually read?

I reached over to a shelf above the desk for the Raymond Loewy biography and studied the photograph on the cover—a dapper, moustachioed Loewy posing in his very modern office in 1934. This was the man who had led the first generation of designer-stylists, people who could turn their hands to almost anything, Loewy himself having been responsible for those sleek Greyhound buses of the 1940s, and for the Lucky Strike cigarette pack, and for the Coldspot-Six refrigerator—all of which information I had gleaned from the blurb on the inside flap of the book as I stood in the shop on Bleecker Street trying to decide whether or not to actually buy it. But that information had been enough to convince me that I needed the book, and that Loewy was a seminal figure, someone I’d better bone up on if I intended to be serious.

But had I boned up on him? Of course not. Wasn’t it enough that I shelled out $35 for the damn book in the first place? Now you want me to read it as well?

I opened Raymond Loewy: A Life at the first chapter—an account of his early days in France, before he emigrated to the US—and started reading.

* * *

A car alarm went off in the street and I endured it for a moment or two, but then looked up—waiting, hoping for it to stop, and soon. After a few more seconds it did and I went back to my reading, but as I refocused on the book I saw that I was already on page 237.

I’d only been reading for about twenty minutes.

I was stunned, and could not understand how I’d gotten through so many pages in such a short space of time. I’m quite a slow reader and it would normally take me three or four hours to read that much. This was amazing. I flipped back through the pages to see if I recognized any of the text and to my surprise I actually did. Because again, in normal circumstances I find that I retain very little of what I read. I even have a hard time following complicated plots in novels, never mind technical or factual stuff. I go into a bookshop and look at the history section, for instance, or the architecture section, or the physics section, and I despair. How is any one person ever again going to be able to come to grips with all of the available material that exists on any given subject? Or even on a specialist area of a subject? It was crazy . . .

But this by contrast—this shit was amazing . . .

I got up out of my chair.

OK, ask me something about Raymond Loewy’s early career.

Like what?

Like—I don’t know—like, how did he get started?

Very well then, how did he get started?

He worked as a fashion illustrator in the late 1920s—for Harper’s Bazaar mostly.

And?

He broke into industrial design when he was commissioned to come up with a new Gestetner duplicating machine. He managed to do it in five days flat. That was in May of 1929. He went on from there and ended up designing everything from tie-pins to locomotives.

I was pacing back and forth across the room now, nodding sagely and clicking my fingers.

Who were his contemporaries?

Norman Bel Geddes, Walter Teague, Henry Dreyfuss.

I cleared my throat and then continued, aloud this time—as if I were delivering a lecture.

Their collective vision of a fully mechanized future—where everything would be clean and new—was showcased at the World’s Fair in New York, in 1939. With the motto “Tomorrow, Now!’, Bel Geddes designed the biggest and most expensive exhibit at the fair, for General Motors. It was called Futurama and represented an imagined America in what was a then-distant 1960—a sort of impatient, dream-like precursor to the New Frontier . . .

I paused again, unable to believe that I’d taken so much of it in, even the obscure stuff—details, for example, about what was used as fill for the enormous land-reclamation scheme in Flushing Bay, where the fair had actually taken place.

Ash and treated garbage.

Six-million cubic yards of it.

Now how did I remember that? It was ridiculous—but at the same time, of course, it was fantastic, and I felt extremely excited.

I went back over to the desk and sat down again. The book was about eight hundred pages long and I reckoned that I didn’t need to read the whole thing—after all, I’d only bought it for background information and I could always refer to it again later on. So I just skimmed through the rest of it. When I’d finished the last chapter—and with the book closed in front of me on the desk—I decided to try and summarize what I had read.

The most relevant point I extracted from the book, I think, was about the Loewy style itself, which was popularly known as streamlining. It was one of the first design concepts to draw its rationale from technology, and from aerodynamics in particular. It required that mechanical objects be sheathed in smooth metal casings and pods, and was all about creating a frictionless society. You could see it mirrored everywhere at the time—in the music of Benny Goodman, for instance, and in the swank settings of Fred Astaire movies, in the ocean liners, nightclubs and penthouse suites where he and Ginger Rogers moved so gracefully through space . . .

I paused for a moment and glanced around the apartment, and over at the window. It was dark and quiet now, or at least as dark and quiet as it can get in a city, and I realized in that instant that I was utterly, unreservedly happy. I held on to the feeling for as long as possible—until I became aware of my own heartbeat, until I could hear it counting out the seconds . . .

Then I looked back at the book, tapped my fingers on the desk, and resumed.

OK . . . the shapes and curves of streamlining created the illusion of perpetual motion. They were a radical new departure. They affected our desires and influenced what we expected from our surroundings—from trains and automobiles and buildings, even from refrigerators and vacuum cleaners, not to mention dozens of other everyday objects. But out of this an important question arose—which came first, the illusion or the desire?

And that was it, of course. I saw it in a flash. That was the first point I would have to make in my introduction. Because something similar—with more or less the same dynamic at work—was to happen later on.

I stood up, walked over to the window and thought about it for a few moments. Then I took a deep breath, because I wanted to get this right.

OK.

The influence . . .

The influence on design later in the century of sub-atomic structures and microcircuitry, together with the quintessential Sixties notion of the interconnectedness of everything was clearly paralleled here in the design marriage of the Machine Age to the growing prewar sense that personal freedom could only be achieved through increased efficiency, mobility and velocity.

Yes.

I went back over to the desk and keyed in some notes on the computer, about ten pages of them, and all from memory. There was a clarity to my thought processes right now that I found exhilarating, and even though all of this was alien to me, at the time it didn’t feel in the least bit odd or strange, and in any case I simply couldn’t stop—but then I didn’t want to stop, because during this last hour or so I had actually done more solid work on my book than I had in the entire previous three months.

So, without pausing for breath, I reached over and took another book down from the shelf, a study of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I skimmed through it in about forty-five minutes, taking notes as I went along. I also read two other books, one about the influence of Art Nouveau on 1960s design and one about the early days of the Grateful Dead in San Francisco.

Altogether, I took about thirty-five pages of notes. In addition, I did a rough draft of the first section of the introduction and worked out a detailed plan for the rest of the book. I did about three thousand words, which I then reread a couple of times and corrected.

*

I started to slow down at around 6 a.m., still not having smoked a cigarette, eaten anything or gone to the bathroom. I felt quite tired, a little headachy perhaps, but that was all, and compared to other times I’d found myself awake at six o’clock in the morning—grinding my teeth, unable to sleep, unable to shut up—believe me, feeling tired and having a mild headache was nothing.

I lay down on the couch again and stretched out. I gazed over at the window and could see the roof of the building opposite, as well as a section of sky that had a tinge of early morning light slowly filtering through it. I listened for sounds, too—the lurching dementia of passing garbage trucks, the occasional police-car siren, the low, sporadic hum of traffic from the avenues. I turned my head in against the cushion and eventually began to relax.

This time there was no unpleasant prickly sensation, and I remained on the couch—though after a while I realized that something was still bothering me.

There was a certain untidiness about crashing out on the couch—it blurred the dividing lines between one day and the next, and lacked a sense of closure . . . or at least that was my line of reasoning at the time. There was also, I was pretty sure, a lot of actual untidiness lurking behind my bedroom door. I hadn’t been in there yet, having somehow managed to avoid it during the frantic compartmentalizing of the previous twelve hours. So I got up off the couch, went over to the bedroom door and opened it. I’d been right—my bedroom was a sty. But I needed to sleep, and I needed to sleep in my bed, so I set about getting the place into some kind of order. It felt more like work than before, more of a chore than when I’d done the kitchen and the living-room, but there were definitely still traces of the drug in my system and that kept me going. When I’d finished, I had a long, hot shower, after which I took two Extra-Strength Excedrin tablets to stave off my headache. Then I put on a clean T-shirt and boxer-shorts, climbed under the covers and fell asleep within, I’d say, about thirty seconds of my head hitting the pillow.

Alan Glynn is the author of two novels, Limitless, which was adapted into the major motion picture of the same name, and Winterland, which was published earlier this year by Minotaur and Faber & Faber. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.

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