Luminarium by Alex Shakar | Book review
The author of The Savage Girl returns.
The first time Fred Brounian sits for the medical study—reclined in a comfortable chair, electrodes on his chest and helmet on his head—he has the type of experience that people pay gurus big money for. His consciousness expands, first merging with the chair and—though this happens later, while walking down the street—with nearby strangers. It’s the beginning of what might be a spiritual awakening, brought on by targeted electromagnetic pulses.
I had a similar experience while reading Luminarium, Chicago author Alex Shakar’s second novel and first in the ten years following his debut, The Savage Girl. That’s not to say that I became one with my chair, but rather I got the sensation that the book was expanding, encapsulating so much of what so many novels have tried to do in the past few years, both consuming and furthering the zeitgeist.
It’s 2006, and the thirtysomething Fred has moved back in with his parents—his mother a reiki convert and his father an at-sea actor who does magic tricks at children’s birthday bashes. Fred’s twin brother, George, lies in a coma six months deep, brought on by a terminal cancer that, since the coma, has gone into remission. George, Fred and younger brother Sam had founded a Second Life–esque virtual world, Urth, Inc. George envisioned it as an online utopia maximizing humanity’s potential, Fred as a chance to reunite with his twin, and Sam as a bottomless receptacle for his manic work ethic. But as the company foundered, they struck a deal to sell to the military contractor Armation, which used the verisimilitude of Urth (which, Sam enthuses, uses “real physics”) for war simulations leading up to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But with George in a coma, Armation has taken full control, Fred has been fired, and Sam has become a company man hypnotized by the brutal war exercises.
So we have, in one novel, the military-entertainment complex, the wide-open wilderness of 21st-century secular spiritualism, the engaged/disengaged dialectic of life lived online, and the persistent question of the value of employment.
The conversations between Fred and his neurological experimenter, Mira Egghart, raise important questions about the intersection of technology and spirituality but never feel like lectures. When Fred thinks he’s reached another plane, Mira explains that it’s because the helmet has affected a specific part of his brain, draining the experience of mystery. Mira argues that what she’s trying to inspire in him is “faith without ignorance.” Mira hopes (and Fred is initially skeptical) that a biological understanding of why one feels faith can only deepen the religiosity. In other words, the endgame for many new spiritual movements. And Fred waffles as pretty much anyone would, at one point asking “What good was a truth that could be perceived only through delusion?” and “But wasn’t a foothold of reason in that sheer cliff of faith precisely what he himself had been trying to obtain through all his recent readings in science?”
There’s a lot more story here, with Fred receiving e-mails that appear to be from a comatose George, communicating from some ill-defined limbo. Of the many plot points, this is the book’s closest brush with traditional science fiction, and it works as another ethereal element in a novel full of dream imagery. Shakar can also turn a phrase, at one point describing a mentally ill woman Fred has “merged” with as possessing “boiled and refrozen eyes.” Regarding Fred’s relationship with his more successful twin, he writes: “Fred understood his individuality to be no more than a variety of hologram, one still in a stereoscopic image of which George was the other.”
But back to that idea of Luminarium as the quintessential contemporary novel. While it’s become fashionable for many so-called literary authors to dabble in the genres, Shakar incorporates elements of science fiction without the Frankenstein scars. And the questions the book raises are the kind we expect from the social-realist novels with birds on their covers, imploring us with their importance. Luminarium is a beautifully written big-questions novel that never gets distracted by its own interrogation, nor seems intent on impressing itself. Here we encounter the cagey allure of the faith demanded by both new spirituality movements and technology. Shakar isn’t so much satirizing the search for faith as he is documenting how treacherous, self-serious and silly it can be. The plot and themes are interwoven seamlessly, even as the various characters fray at their edges.
Luminarium is out this month.