Monday, September 26, 2011


Luminarium, Alex Shakar, Soho Press, 2011, 432 pp

Luminarium is the best book I have read this year. It just has everything I like: a super intelligent author, set in contemporary times with hip current issues, a quirky family tale, and the science vs religion question handled with plenty of irony and humor.

Alex Shakar's first novel, The Savage Girl was good but I had some problems with it, one of which was the soullessness of his characters. In Luminarium he clearly went looking for spiritual underpinnings, as does his main character, and was successful in his quest.

Fred Brounian, the seeker in the story, is a twin. He and George grew up with yearnings for a better world which they found by creating one virtually. Meanwhile the real world got worse: the attack on the World Trade Center, the resulting fear of terrorism and wars, and the rise of the military in American life. In fact, Fred, George and a third brother Sam, suffered their own attack when Urth, their highly successful virtual world company, was gobbled up by Armation, whose government contracts involved creating virtual worlds for military training. During this descent from utopia to total war, George fell fatally ill and now lies in a coma. He is being kept alive at a financial cost that is bankrupting Fred.

It is a bit of a cliche. A modern man, fairly atheistic, who is intelligent and has always put his faith in science and technology, hits rock bottom and turns to religion. Alex Shakar doesn't do cliches except to turn them inside out by means of the above mentioned irony and humor. So when Fred signs up for a neurological study and puts on the "God helmet" while Mira, his researcher and guide, alludes to "faith without ignorance," he and the reader are in for some wild rides straddling the boundaries between science and religion.

The impressive degree of complexity here make reading Luminarium compelling. Fred falls in love with Mira, a woman full of mystery and contradictions. Concurrently he is receiving emails and texts from his comatose twin and while rationally he knows they have to be bogus, the chance that George is actually reaching out to him on some inexplicable spiritual plane propels him into researching religions ancient and modern and comparing his findings to the quantum physics he has always pursued in his spare time.

All of this is conveyed in some of the most consummate prose I have read. Fred's out of body adventures, brought on by the "God helmet" electrodes, are explained to him in terms of the targeted stimulation of various lobes in his brain. But descriptions of the ways Fred experiences feeling one with the universe, being overwhelmed by love for strangers, etc are comparable to those found in the early Carlos Castaneda books. Taking the reader through Fred's search for meaning as he tries to solve the chaos that is his current life, Shakar maintains the confusions and anxiety of his characters without ever losing the reader.

By the end of the story, most of the mysteries in the lives of Fred and his brothers are solved and the questions raised have been answered. True to life though is a final chapter that opens a whole new set of possibilities for Fred's future. I personally dream of a future where science and religion have met. Whatever your beliefs or dreams, this novel will challenge you and make you think about where our world is going. In our current state of rapid technological advance, Alex Shakar posits that we still need spiritual answers, that family and love matter, but loss and misunderstandings confront us at every turn. It is a wonder how he made such potentially weighty ideas so entertaining.

(Luminarium is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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