by Alex Shakar
How does one even begin to talk about Alex Shakar's Luminarium? It is 432 pages of swirling narrative touching upon twins, cancer, the nature of existence, brain chemistry, love, 9/11, synchronicity, and eastern religion. Set in 2006 New York City, post-tech bubble but pre-recession, the wounds of the new millennium still feel fresh.
Fred Brounian has used all of his money to keep his twin brother George alive. Cancer-ridden and in a coma, George was once partners with Fred and their other brother, Sam, as creators of the virtual world, Urth. Urth has since been sold to a military contracting company out of Florida, turning what was supposed to be an online utopia into a role-playing platform for terrorism response. Sam will continue on to Florida, whereas Fred has all but been forced out in George's absence. He's living with their parents and spending most of his time at the hospital when he sees a flier from the Department of Neural Science at New York University looking for study participants. Do you feel your life is without purpose? it asks. Fred checks out the study's website:
Among the healthful psychological qualities associated with individuals who describe themselves as having experienced a "spiritual awakening" are:
- a sense of well-being and connectedness in the world
-a sense of being "in the moment"
-a sense of union with a "higher" force
-a sense of calm detachment from everyday difficulties
-a decrease in negative emotions such as anger and fear
-an increase in positive emotions such as compassion and love
By reproducing the "peak" experiences commonly associated with spiritual awakening, this study hopes to help participants change their long-term cognitive patterns , leading to enhanced self-efficacy and quality of life. It should be stressed that these sessions will not involve religious indoctrination of any kind.
Both intrigued and dismissive, Fred debates over whether or not to contact the study's organizers. He can never really figure out what is the "right" thing to do.
Because if George were the one here, he — George — would have done it in a heartbeat. And because a sizable part of Fred wished it were George here instead of him, felt it should have been. And because, clicking on the link and filling out the questionnaire, Fred was able to feel what George would have felt — a peculiar, tense electricity in his chest and limbs, as though the study's purported electromagnetic signals were already coursing up through the keyboard. Like the onset of panic but without the nausea. Like the opening hole of despair but more like hunger. A sensation so long unfelt couldn't straightaway place it as hope.
At the study — Fred thinks the word "experiment" is more apt — he meets Mira Egghart, a lovely woman who places on him electrodes and a metal helmet. "It's safer than it looks," she says. What happens next, Fred cannot explain.
Another thing Fred can't explain is the email that he received, ten days prior. The subject? Only two words: Help, Avatara. No message. The sender? George. Fred can't help but think it's a server glitch or perhaps a cruel prank. Six months to the day, George has laid unconscious in that hospital bed. What did all this mean?
At its core, Luminarium is about a crisis of place. Faith, family, self-worth — all of it is tied to how we see ourselves in the world. Without the world we know, what is left? Alex Shakar tackles these massive subjects in layers upon layers of symbolism. Even Mira's name means "watch" in Spanish — appropriate for a woman who studies these crises. It's a command, that word.
Please observe that this exists.
Fred Brounian wants so badly to earn his existence.
To make extra money, Fred performs magic shows at parties with his father, Vartan. Vartan has lost the will to further pursue his acting career, and even though at times he has found success, he no longer believes that the theatre and cinema worlds have a place for him. Instead, he suspends the disbelief of schoolchildren, then smokes a bowl in the van parked outside.
Fred's mother, Holly, has become a Reiki master, in part because the practice calms her hand tremors. Her group meets often to heal the "energy" around George. They believe they have done some good, and other patients want that goodness directed their way. Everyone wants that one "thing" that's going to make their troubles vanish.
Emails from George keep arriving. Instant messages. Fred keeps returning to Mira and her study. He believes he is floating above his body and does not know how or why. His other half, his reasoned inner voice, is crumbling faster than he can repair.
This morning he'd dreamt he was eating the inside of his mouth, not just chewing it, but really eating. It was some kind of wasting disease, the action of his molars, a continual self-feeding frenzy. Unless his twin could be found to give him a transfusion, there was nothing that could be done, a doctor was telling a team of residents as they stood over Fred's bed in some sort of strange, high-ceilinged soundstage of a hospital. This mention of his twin was the closest Fred had come in the last six months of actually dreaming of George himself. George used to figure in his dreams all the time. Now he wouldn't even show up to save Fred from eating himself alive. The doctor and the residents left the room. By the time they returned, Fred understood, there'd be nothing left of him but a drool-covered white tuxedo and a pair of jaws.
Luminarium benefits from mental simmering. While reading, we may be just as bewildered as Fred, unsure of where or how all these events will resolve. With time and some additional thought, the real depth of what Shakar has accomplished becomes clear. He has written an extraordinary book, one I've grown to enjoy more once I've had some time away. Dave Egger's blurbs the book and says it's "so intellectually invigorating, you'll want to read it twice." Though I do not know when I will start again, that's good advice. Not every writer can pull off a novel of this scope, but Alex Shakar inspires us to try.
Full disclosure: Soho Press sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.