‘The CIA introduced LSD into American society. They weaponised it’
Alan Glynn’s new novel, ‘Under the Night’, is a drug-fuelled age-of-conspiracy thriller
Alan Glynn. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
It was eight years ago in a train station car park. Alan Glynn’s name came up on my phone and I answered immediately, hoping to hear gossip from the set of The Dark Fields, the movie adaptation of his 2001 debut novel, which was shooting in Philadelphia and New York at the time.
“They want to change the title. To Limitless.”
“I’m not going to let them.”
“I can’t stop them though, can I?”
You might have heard of Limitless. It starred Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, it grossed $161 million (€139 million) and it was that rare thing: a cinematic adaptation that did more than justice to its ingenious source material.
One of the striking things about Glynn’s new novel, Under the Night, a prequel and sequel to the earlier book, is that it has the same epigraph, from the closing lines of The Great Gatsby, when Gatsby’s dream “was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night”.
“My intention was to reclaim the title,” Glynn says now. “It seemed like a natural progression.”
We’re huddled in a pub on Camden Street in Dublin, trying to make ourselves heard over the Thursday evening drinkers. We’ve been friends since we were English students at Trinity in the early 1980s; as fledgling writers, we shared notes along the way, often in pubs like this.
It’s a wild ride, laced with all the characteristic Glynn features: paranoia, dread, bodily unease
“I suppose I saw the original book as a cautionary tale, the idea of taking a drug [the fictional MDT-48] to boost your brain power as an analogue to performance-enhancing drugs in sport. The ending of the book is quite dark, unlike the film. It’s the Promethean myth, trying to go beyond our human limitations, it’s Icarus, if you fly too close to the sun you’re going to come a cropper.”
The allure of MDT-40, Glynn’s mind-enhancing wonder drug that will not only unleash your full potential but induce other humans to engage favourably with you, is less equivocal in Under the Night.
“It’s a broader application of what a drug like that might be able to do, it’s more positive. There’s a sense now that humans can and will be able to transcend what we think of as human limitations, the rate of technological development is so fast and so staggering that we will actually be able to do things that 20 years ago seemed like science fiction.”
Under the Night opens in New York with agitated advertising executive Ned Sweeney wandering the Friday night streets of 1950s Greenwich Village and swiftly coming to the realisation that the guy in the apartment on West 4th Street must have slipped him a Mickey Finn. Restlessness vies with dread as Sweeney delves deeper into the night until he finds himself in a bar improvising great screeds of advertising theory to a journalist whose name happens to be Vance Packard: “We’re all using new psychiatric techniques to chart the very fabric of the human mind. And we’re not doing it to find out what people want . . . we’re doing it to find out how to make people want stuff.”
Later, in the Waldorf Hotel, he’s warning state official Robert Moses to let baseball magnate Walter O’Malley build his stadium on Atlantic Avenue or he’ll move the Dodgers out of Brooklyn; later still, he’s in a penthouse suite cautioning Marlon Brando about the need to stand up to the senator from Wisconsin, and counselling Marilyn Monroe about the perils of fame. Turns out the guy in the apartment on West 4th Street was in the CIA, and Sweeney has been dosed with MDT-48; his not so fortunate colleague took a shot of LSD that proved fatal.
“The CIA introduced LSD into American society,” Glynn reminds me. “They weaponised it, trying to find a possible use for it, maybe as a truth serum, or to wash memory, and it seeped out into the culture. Serious psychiatrists used it as a therapeutic aid. But by the 60s it had grown so widespread that they shut it down, and for 50 years there’s been no serious research into psychedelics, not until very recently.”
Glynn’s masterstroke is to position the fictional MDT-48 alongside LSD; as a result it’s very difficult to believe this wonder drug doesn’t actually exist.
“I tried to combine the internal journey you would go on with LSD, which really cuts you off from what’s going on outside, with something that you can completely negotiate and control,” he says. “The human brain can work in those ways, whether with psychedelics or meditation or other practices that people have used for thousands of years, and the potential that we have is fairly extraordinary.”
In the contemporary strand of Under the Night, Sweeney’s grandson Ray gets drawn into his late grandfather’s world through the manipulations of a retired government official, the exquisitely named Clay Proctor, and the narrative cuts back and forth between the two men to breathtaking effect.
It’s a wild ride, laced with all the characteristic Glynn features: paranoia, dread, bodily unease (often understandable due to the prodigious substance ingestion), and a prelapsarian sense of conspiracy theory as something untarnished by fake news and the likes of Alex Jones, something that might actually uncover the truth.
Glynn has cited as his formative influences Alan Pakula’s early 70s paranoia thrillers Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, along with Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation; it’s hard not to discern traces of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo also, although there is nothing difficult or post-modern about the books: the prose is meticulous but fluent, with a persuasive, urbane American rhythmic pulse. Even when he sets a novel in Ireland, as he did with Winterland and, in part, the Irish Book Award-winning, Edgar-nominated Bloodland, it feels as if he is merely visiting. Yet he was born and raised in Drumcondra on Dublin’s northside. What gives?
“My parents were the same,” Glynn says. “My father’s man was Bing Crosby; my mother would sing the songs from any Hollywood movie. And I was a slow reader, so the classic literature I was supposed to be reading, most of it I didn’t. It came down to those 70s movies, and Watergate, of course, which led to an obsession with American politics, with the nature of power.”
When the current moment is so volatile, the past is a way to understand that this stuff has happened before
Glynn moved to New York after graduating from Trinity; he now lives with his family in Terenure. But his thematic preoccupations remain constant. Inevitably we turn to the present, and to the president.
“The aspect of the whole Trump thing I find fascinating is how one individual with all his insane flaws can have such a massive impact on the whole world. It’s just one guy and he’s managed to rise up and imprint himself all over the culture.”
Glynn admits that the never-ending intensity of the grotesque Trump carnival has had a somewhat inhibiting effect creatively, and that as a consequence he has been looking back in time for subject matter, citing the scandal-ridden presidency of Ulysses S Grant in the 1870s as a possible subject.
“When the current moment is so volatile, the past is a way to understand that this stuff has happened before.”
In an age of alternative facts and QAnon, is conspiracy theory now irredeemably toxic? “It used to be a clearer way of understanding the way things worked, the way things are. But truth . . . clarity and truth are things that still have to be valued and striven for.”
Night is falling. Let’s go back to where we started.
“The Great Gatsby has given you two book titles. What is it about FitzGerald, and that novel, that so captures your imagination?”
“I’ve always loved FitzGerald’s interest in the power of dreams, how the impulse to recreate the past, or to re-invent ourselves for the future, is not just a form of delusion – it is that, and a dangerous one – but without the poetic elevation this impulse sometimes affords us we’d have very little chance of ever understanding who we are. Even though The Great Gatsby was written in the 1920s, it remains a perfect deconstruction of the collective psychological fever we’re all still sweating through nearly a hundred years later.”
Under the Night is published by Faber & Faber, £12.99