Pharmacology
by Christopher Herz
Reviewed by Michael Potts

What if America’s “therapeutic culture” were an invention of drug companies and doctors motivated by greed? Suppose these companies and doctors had broadened the definition of “depression” in order to sell new antidepressant medications, despite knowing about serious health risks, and had invented “ADHD” so they could develop a drug to treat the symptoms of an imaginary disease. Christopher Herz’s Pharmacology is a book that explores these possibilities in an alternate San Francisco in 1993.

Pharmacology creeps toward the main plot which begins about halfway through. This did not bother me because Herz is careful to develop his characters in detail in order to help the reader “suspend disbelief.” His world is close enough to this world to recognize, yet different enough to justify calling this novel “speculative fiction.” The development of a set of odd characters at the margins of society sets up the last half of the book, which flows fast to an unexpected climax.

The main character, Sarah, moves to San Francisco from Kansas City to find herself and make money to send to her father who suffers from cancer. She believes that the antidepressant medication her father had taken caused the cancer. She is young, hip, intelligent, a reader of good books who enjoys both hip hop and jazz. Other than her father, she is the most “normal” character in a book filled with the odd, the unusual, and the grotesque. Sarah’s roommates include two blood-drinking “vampires” (complete with implanted fangs), a “skater punk-whore goat-faced guy,” two junkies, and strippers who serve as masters of an S & M dungeon. Sarah does not find such a living arrangement ideal, and she moves from job to job in an attempt to find another place to stay and to send more money to her father. She works on the side without pay, editing an underground zine, The Luddite. Nothing seems to work out until she meets Alberto, a zealous enemy of pharmaceutical companies. Together they hatch a plan to infiltrate a startup pharma company and report in The Luddite on any unethical activities going on there. 

Sarah gets a job at the company. The atmosphere there is informal--Sarah can dress as she likes, and although each work team has a task, their job consists of thinking up good ideas to complete their assigned task and bouncing those ideas among members of the workgroup. Sarah’s group is assigned to help convince parents that their children, hooked on the new medium of the Internet, have shorter attention spans, and therefore suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). A coalition of doctors and the drug company have joined together to create (and name) an imaginary disease in order to sell their drug designed to treat the “symptoms” of ADHD.

Sarah is torn between the temptation of the high salary, her romantic interest in Kimberly, a manager of the pharma company, and her moral duty to stay true to her task and expose the conspiracy in The Luddite (an ironic name given the company’s plan to use the newest wave, the Internet, to push its product). I cannot say more about the novel’s plot since that would mean too many spoilers—suffice to say that there are unexpected twists at the end.

Overall Pharmacology is a hip, well-written alternative history novel, a cross between Catcher in the Rye and a Michael Crichton novel. The dialogue is sharp but inconsistent--during the first few pages of the novel Sarah uses such a hip dialect that it was difficult for me to follow her first-person narrative. This problem is made more acute by that dialect appearing in a flashback. Sarah’s hip teen dialect tones down as the novel progresses. Although this could symbolize Sarah’s growing maturity, it would make more sense to start from the beginning of the story and progress in temporal order to the end.

Sarah remains, however, a believable character. The minor characters are grotesque cutouts to some degree, but they add a sense of the oddness and wide-open nature of life in San Francisco, especially in the context of youths who go to extremes because they are searching--but never finding--who they are. While Sarah is not a “goody-goody,” and participates in illegal activities such as selling drugs, she does this out of desperation for money and to keep peace where she lives. She continually comments, sometimes with eloquence, concerning the shallowness of such lifestyles. She wants to do something better, something more important. She also wants to find true love--not something false--and discovers that seeking such love is as difficult as finding the truth in the web of lies inside a pharmaceutical company. Through her rough street smarts shines a caring person who desires to help her father and to help people who, like him, were harmed by pharmaceutical companies.

As an old fogey of fifty, I find the youth culture Pharmacology describes foreign--yet I still enjoyed the read. Once the main plot line was reached I could not put the book down. I highly recommend Pharmacology to anyone interested in contemporary youth during a breakthrough period when the Internet exploded to a dominant place in American and in world culture. Fans of alternative histories involving conspiracy theories would also enjoy Pharmacology.