Alex Shakar is a curious brainiac who writes poetically, humorously, ironically and intelligently about the search for meaning in life. If that sounds more like theory than story, and less than compelling, it is a fair approximation of my disappointment with Luminarium, a novel with a lot to recommend it. Here’s a passage that captures what I loved about it—a longish passage to reflect a longish book. The protagonist is musing about the restoration of the old Washington Square Arch in Greenwich Village several years after the disastrous attack on the World Trade Center.
“He supposed he preferred dwelling on signs of the city’s rot and crumbling infrastructure to acknowledging its renewal, all the ways in which it was actually succeeding in getting younger and hipper and richer right in step with its residents. This latter phenomenon could make him feel doubly cheated out of his former life, make him feel like the attack had been merely a ruse, a mock fainting spell, to win the city sympathy and an allure of vulnerability, to make living here seem not just a luxury but an act of heroism, too, so that all those newly heroical investment bankers and hedge fund managers and trustafarians, and anyone else who had it all could now really have it all—the doormen and wrap-around terraces and gourmet delis and the moral superiority. And who knew, maybe it really could all keep right on perpetuating itself, a city of ever more concentrated riches and sexiness and youth. Maybe it could all get so bone-meltingly gorgeous that every visiting fanatic with a suitcase bomb would go weak-kneed and start worshipping the bronze bull, that the very rising oceans would peel back in awe.”
New York City, five years after 9-11. Shakar nails it. The story of Fred Brounian, his comatose twin brother George, their driven kid brother Sam, an NYU neuro-researcher named Mira who simulates spiritual experiences for Fred with the use of a god-helmet, a rapacious military contractor, Armation, who eats the virtual reality utopia the twins developed from scratch and twists it into a powerful mind weapon, the whole escalating, greed-driven and soulless landscape is laid out like a computer game. Fred can’t cope with the loss of George, who unaccountably lives on in his silent world, unaware of the family trying to bring him back. Nor can he accept the implosion of their successful business as the Twin Towers fell, investors fled and the nation around them hardened into a permanent state of war.
The story happens in the past but it seems like a prediction. We do live in that place and it is as airless and without grace as Shakar paints it. Fred wanders through New Age spiritual practices, ancient teachings from the Veda, out-of-body visions, the loss of his fiancée and his fab apartment in the Zeckendorf Towers, neurological explanations from the elusive Mira, any number of bars, abrasive encounters with mid-level Armation executives. He is lost and he knows it but he can’t imagine the way out. And then he starts getting emails from George, referring to an “avatara,” and he begins to question his own sanity.
Shakar takes pot shots at military contractors, Disney’s Celebration community (a manufactured town adjacent to Disney World in Orlando), religious opiates, and just about anything that moves in this virtual reality. The original concept of Urth, George’s utopian ideal meant to guide users to heightened states of compassion and illumination, devolves into a world of simulated terrorist attacks that bring down the Empire State Building and recreate horrors like people jumping out of burning skyscrapers or war zones with attacking armies, guerrillas and civilians. The simulations are meant to provide virtual training but Fred suspects they are influencing coarser, less humane behavior patterns and beliefs.
Luminarium, is a cool idea with a lot of cool ideas in it. The writing is, in places, “bone-meltingly gorgeous.” It’s also way too light on plot and probably too long. I liked many things about this book and it is extremely intelligent. Not a can’t-put-it-down story though. The book’s title is a Latin word meaning “lantern” and the search for enlightenment—or even a ray of hope, a glimmer of a way forward—preoccupies Fred and, to different degrees, a number of the characters. It is interesting philosophy and really really clever observation. Could use a closer acquaintance with Aristotelian Beginning, Middle and End to make it a more satisfying read.
Luminarium Alex Shakar | Soho Press 2011