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PharmakonReview - Pharmakon
A Novel
by Dirk Wittenborn
Penguin Audio, 2008
Review by Christian Perring
Mar 24th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 13)

Pharmakon is an ambitious novel spanning from the 1950s to the 1990s, about a pioneer in the development of psychotropic drugs, Dr. Friedrich.  It has two narrators, Friedrich's youngest child Zack, and an impersonal observer.  Each narrator has ownership of different sections of the novel.  Zack gives his own point of view, while the impersonal narrator has access to all the characters' thoughts and feelings.  The novel starts years before Zack is born. Friedrich is a young professor at Yale with a wife and four children to support, eager to make his reputation, and jealous of those who were born with more opportunities.  He starts a collaboration with a brilliant colleague, Winton, testing a drug they extracted from an herb, Gai Kow Dong, GKD, used by an African tribe of cannibals.  The researchers hope to show that the chemical can help boost people's confidence and make them happier.  The trial of the drug seems to be going very well. One of the subjects, a brilliant young but very socially awkward Caspar Getsic, has some serious mental health problems, and has previously tried to kill himself because of his difficulty at forming relationships with others.  The change in him one he starts taking GKD is astonishing: he makes new friends quickly, finds a girlfriend, and starts using his unusual intelligence to make himself a great deal of money.  But when the drug trial ends, Getsic becomes extremely angry and violent, and a tragedy ensues.

Zack is born after this tragedy, which looms over his family for the rest of the novel.  Zack lives in the shadow of his successful siblings, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s.  He goes to an exclusive private high school, a time when drugs were ubiquitous.  Zack starts using drugs when he gets his first girlfriend when he is 14, and they become a major part of his life.  At first they help him, but then they become a problem.  His siblings also start to disappoint their parents, having messy lives, making major errors of judgment, and refusing to conform to their father's expectations.   All these troubles seem to originate in Friedrich's original misjudgment about Caspar Getsic, who was hospitalized for the rest of his life.  All through the book, medical and street drugs play an important role, sometimes helping, but more often causing problems. 

Reflecting on the role of mood altering chemicals in American culture in the second half of the twentieth century an interesting idea for a novel, but it requires remarkable still to carry it off.  Wittenborn's novel has a soap-opera quality as it follows the twists and turns of the fortunes of Friedrich's family.  Friedrich himself is the center of the book, but he is a distant and unsympathetic character.  Maybe one of the central points is that the birth of psychotropic medication would due to a person whose understanding of human nature was both brilliant and yet lacking in some essential human quality, but it does not work well as a literary device.  Zack is a far more sympathetic character, but somehow he is not a believable one: his whole life seems to be created for Wittenborn to make his points about drugs.  By far the most compelling character in the book is Caspar, whose initial temerity and extreme intelligence make him a character for us to warm to.  However, he disappears half way through the book, never to be seen again.  So Pharmkon is a novel that is more interesting in its conception than it is in its execution. 

© 2009 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York


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