Not naming any names or nowt, but as events this week in Ireland have proved, you can’t be too paranoid about the likely consequences when the worlds of business and politics collide. That’s a theme explored in ‘Limitless’ (see review here), the movie adapted from the novel THE DARK FIELDS written by Alan Glynn (right, in full-on Kenneth Branagh mode). As he explains in an Irish Times interview published today, it’s a theme Glynn further explores in the novels WINTERLAND (2009) and the forthcoming BLOODLAND (2011). To wit:
“People Do Get Away With Murder”
A writer of dark, thoughtful thrillers, Alan Glynn waited 10 years for his first novel to get the movie treatment. But when your hero Robert De Niro is starring in it, it’s worth the wait, he tells Declan Burke
“The idea of there being a ‘quick fix’ for everything in your life is one that’s current in the culture,” says Alan Glynn, author of THE DARK FIELDS, from which the film ‘Limitless’ is adapted. “There’s a drug for everything, there’s a quick diet, you can make yourself over, all these kinds of things. So it was a question of taking that notion and reducing it to a simple pill - if you take this one pill, you can have the world, but it’s going to cost you your soul.”
‘Limitless’ stars Bradley Cooper, who plays struggling New York writer Eddie Morra. Once Eddie is introduced to a new super-drug, NZT, his life is changed utterly. Productive, insightful and surpassingly intelligent, Eddie is soon making a fortune trading stocks. But every drug has its side-effects, and Eddie’s come-down involves paranoia, betrayal and the distinct possibility of an early death.
Right now, Alan Glynn’s adrenaline rush has no need of artificial stimulants.
“Before the movie started,” says Glynn of last week’s New York premiere of ‘Limitless’, “the director, Neil Burger, stood up and said he wanted to introduce a few people who were involved in the movie. And he said, ‘This all started with the book,’ and introduced me first (laughs). I hadn’t expected that, and I thought it was lovely, because after that he went through Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper, all the rest. So that was very gratifying.”
What made it even better was that De Niro was sitting three rows behind in the theatre. “He was a hero of mine, as he was to a whole generation,” says Glynn. “If you had told me when the rights for THE DARK FIELDS were first signed [in 2001] that I’d have to wait another ten years to see it made, but Robert De Niro would be in the movie, I’d have taken that.”
In a neat touch, the title of the book Eddie publishes in ‘Limitless’ is called ‘Illuminating the Dark Fields’. In the real world, THE DARK FIELDS has been re-released under the title LIMITLESS.
“I’m not so happy about that,” he says. “Obviously, I’m very attached to the original title, it’s from the last page of THE GREAT GATSBY, and it has thematic resonances throughout the whole book, while the title ‘Limitless’ is the product of a marketing testing system. But the book has been re-released here and in the US, it was in the shops in the US before the movie opened and selling quite well. I mean, even before the movie has been released, the book has sold more copies now than it did on the entire run of its first publication.”
Glynn, who lives in Dublin with his wife and two sons, lived in New York from 1985 to 1989, but only started writing THE DARK FIELDS after he moved back to Ireland from Italy in 1999. “That was around the time of the dot com bubble, and in the book there’s this whole section about the biggest corporate merger in American history, which I based on the Time Warner / AOL merger of the time.”
The Faustian pact Eddie enters into is a theme Glynn subsequently explored in WINTERLAND (2009). Set in Dublin just as the property boom is going bust, and hailed as remarkably prescient on its release, it explores the shadowy nexus where the worlds of politics, business and white- and blue-collar crime intersect.
“In anything I’ve ever written,” he says, “there always seems to be a dark, malign power figure at the heart of the story. It seems to me that the modern incarnation of that malign power in society is the CEO, who’s almost like the Machiavellian Prince figure. A politician or even a monarch might have a sense of responsibility to go with that power, but the CEO has a responsibility solely to his or her shareholders, so it’s almost an amoral power. In that sense it’s a very modern pure form of power, which can even be more evil in its consequences, with no regard all for any community or human value whatsoever.
“I go into that in BLOODLAND as well. WINTERLAND is about the property boom in Ireland, but BLOODLAND has a broader, more international setting. Part of it has to do with the illegal mining of coltan in the Congo, and the lack of accountability there in the supply chain between the metals extracted illegally and high-end consumer products that are found in the First World. Coltan is essential for use in capacitors in the electronic equipment we use all the time - it’s in every mobile phone, every game console, that we use. But there doesn’t seem to be any moral connect between that and the conditions in which this stuff is extracted in the Congo, and which has in part been responsible for a war that’s been going on for nearly 20 years, in which five to eight million people have been killed. I mean, it’s covered intermittently, but the scale of it is mind-boggling. But because it’s not about oil, it flies under the radar, strategically speaking. I don’t want to sound polemical or that I’m pushing an agenda, but I’m using that to explore the kinds of power figures who control that trade, from the upper echelons of corporate America. That’s one strand of the story, and there’s a political aspect, and military contractors, and the privatisation of war as a business.
“What I’m planning for the next book,” he continues, “which is called GRAVELAND - it’s the third in a loose trilogy - is to go back into the past, back to the 1870s in America, when the railroads were being built. There’s a character called James Vaughn who features in WINTERLAND, the old American corporate guy, he’s also in ‘Bloodland’ and he’ll feature largely in GRAVELAND - it goes back into his family history, almost like exploring a Kennedy-like dynasty.”
Glynn was first inspired to write by what he calls the ‘great paranoid thrillers’ of the 1970s. How does ‘Limitless’ compares as a conspiracy thriller to that Golden Age?
“It’s obviously different to the classic conspiracy thrillers,” he says, “the tone and the feel of those movies was so specific to the times, y’know, Watergate, Vietnam, and that paranoid, claustrophobic feeling can’t be recreated authentically. And it’s definitely not in this movie - there’s a lighter tone to this film, there’s a knowing, satirical edge to it that you didn’t get in the classic conspiracy thrillers.”
While the movie ends on an upbeat but morally complex note, the novel THE DARK FIELDS has a very bleak and noir finale.
“It’s not the book up there on screen,” Glynn concedes, “but you expect that. There’s always more depth in a book. In the movie, Eddie doesn’t get the really fuzzy end of the Faustian pact he gets in the book. But then, cinema is a whole different medium, there’s a totally different energy to it. The movie is the book’s story edited down to the bone.”
That didn’t stop the author from enjoying the movie, which topped the US box office on its release last weekend.
“To be perfectly honest, I grinned like a loon the whole way through,” he says. “I was anticipating feeling ambivalent, or even horrified, possibly, and afterwards there was such a sense of relief that I’d enjoyed it so much. I met Neil Burger two minutes after it finished, and I was able to shake his hand and say, ‘I loved it.’ Which was a great relief (laughs). To be able to speak positively about it is great. It’d be a strange position to be in otherwise, to have to either (a) lie about it or (b) tell the brutal truth. But I don’t have to do either of those, which is great.”
Despite the themes of power and corruption, and the criminal activities in which his characters tend to dabble, Glynn is in no hurry to pigeonhole himself as a particular kind of writer.
“I don’t really care about the labels. When I say I don’t see myself as a crime writer, I don’t mean that to sound judgemental. I love crime fiction, but that’s not in my head when I’m writing. I wouldn’t consider myself a literary writer either, I just do what I do.”
The innate conservatism of the crime novel, where order almost inevitably emerges from chaos, is an unnecessarily restrictive constraint.
“There is that element of conservatism and morality that exists in a lot of crime fiction, the idea that the wrong has to be set right. But some of the stuff I’ve done has almost been a cynical conclusion that right doesn’t triumph, that the harsh reality is that it often doesn’t, and that people do get away with murder.
“I mean, by the end of WINTERLAND, the bad guy isn’t caught and held accountable, but he does die according to his own weakness. There’s a certain amount of wrapping-up there, but it’s a bit more complex than just the bad guy brought down by the good guy.”
Alan Glynn’s Top Paranoid Thrillers
“With its sun-drenched 1930s LA setting, a brilliant script by Robert Towne and unforgettable score by Jerry Goldsmith, Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ is the ultimate study of power and corruption. It looks back nostalgically to the classic noir era, but it also roots itself in the malaise of the 1970s – because never before had a big screen American hero been so casually crushed by malign, unaccountable forces.”
‘Three Days of the Condor’ (1975)
“The ending is brilliant, it’s an ending they’d never use today. The Robert Redford character is standing outside the ‘New York Times’ offices, and he’s telling this guy he’s about to blow the story, this conspiracy, wide open. And the guy is saying, well, go ahead, but do you really think it’s worth it, every day for the rest of your life looking over your shoulder? And it all ends on a very dark, paranoid note …”
‘All the President’s Men’ (1976)
“Even today, it really stands up. I saw it again recently and it’s just fantastic. What’s great about it is the way it cuts out before the whole thing about Nixon really goes off, they’re typing away - tchk-tchk-tchck- it’s up there on the screen, it’s fantastic. And that kind of ending requires the audience to know what happened next, to be intelligent enough to make their own leap. That doesn’t happen a lot these days.”
‘Marathon Man’ (1976)
“I love Marathon Man. I saw it when it came out first, I was still a kid, and I absolutely adored it. Especially the music, by Michael Small. You can’t get it anymore. None of his scores are available, and he’s one of the key ’70s composers of music for paranoid thrillers - ‘Klute’, ‘Marathon Man’ and a couple of others.”
‘Limitless’ goes on general release this weekend. Alan Glynn’s BLOODLAND will be published by Faber & Faber in September.
This interview first appeared in the Irish Times
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.