Author Alex Shakar. (Rembert Block, Soho Press…)
Soho Press: 432 pp., $25
In all the clutter of the Internet — that endless library, endless strip mall, endless portal for self-diagnosis, pornography or opportunities for stalking your ex — isn't it possible that somewhere the secret to bliss exists?
There it is, the directions for freedom from the self and its torments. You might stumble on it after 16 clicks through ad farms, deserted Myspace pages and circa 2000 blogs.
The fantasy of ferreting out truth in the whorls of information available to us is explored in Alex Shakar's grandly ambitious second novel, "Luminarium." Weighing in at more than 400 pages, the story is centered on twin brothers Fred and George Brounian (the latter cancer-ridden and in a coma) and on restless searches for meaning in several realms: some physical and mapped, others more abstract.
It's a brilliant book dogged in its pursuit of disassembling human experience in hopes of finding the essence, or at least an astoundingly prismatic view. At times, "Luminarium" gets ensnared in its tireless revolutions of plot and philosophical roving, but Shakar is fearless in what existential thread he will follow — the bigger the concept, the bigger his bite.
The Internet and its virtual realities is one of those concepts fruitfully mined, but the thorniest and most rewarding of all is spirituality. As a pony-tailed Reiki master named Guy sums it up for Fred: "Four thousand religions. Two hundred nations. Six billion people. All defending what doesn't exist." But it doesn't stop us from trying to find the right one, even skeptics like Fred, who joins a neurotheological study that promises to reproduce "the 'peak' experiences commonly associated with spiritual awakening."
Fred puts on a sparkly gold motorcycle helmet outfitted with protruding wires, and his first experience results in the erasure of his typical sense of self-boundaries. A sensation that feels like "a focused point of attention expanding, carrying him outward in all directions. The galaxy approaching, as if he might contain it all, every last thing everywhere, but for the fear, rising up like an arm to pull him back."
Doubt and fear are important emotions in "Luminarium," innately stitched into the idea of faith. When Fred starts receiving emails and texts supposedly from his comatose brother, he engages in a contemplative cycle that could stand in for the challenges of keeping faith at large: First, he entertains the idea that his brother is communicating from some suspended state of spiritual existence, but then he bats it down as conspiracy. Rinse. Repeat. Add in late-night Internet searches into Hindu cosmology to decipher the cryptic transmissions.
To name a few other spaces or concepts plumbed in "Luminarium," there's Urth, a virtual reality created by the twins, who were once idealistic CEOs of a software company that's been overtaken by a military contracting conglomerate. And then there's New York City, where the novel is set, opening a few weeks before the fifth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks.
Notably, 9/11 was the very event that clouded the reception of Shakar's first novel, "The Savage Girl." The satire on the dark side of consumerist culture published around the time of the attacks was critically praised but hastily dismissed as a totem of an ironic age no longer appropriate, a bit of jujitsu from the wily zeitgeist that could've been taken right out of "The Savage Girl."
But in "Luminarium," the specter of the two buildings and the image of them tumbling down, sending out noxious plumes of dust from a once-seemingly indestructible symbol of American life gives the novel one of its most beautiful and haunting images.
In one of the recorded meditations Fred is given by Mira Egghart, the geeky but hot scientist administering the neurotheological study, Fred is instructed to picture the city "coming free" as he floats above it: "Look, as you float up story by story, inside all those dissolving rooms. At the molding and drywall working loose… even the streets are rippling, chunks coming free." Eventually, "you're high above the planet, in a sea of the city's parts."
Escapism, at its most transcendental level, is another kind of fantasy at play in "Luminarium." If you can't figure it out — the city, religion, love, life — can you just be free of it?
If so, "Luminarium" wants us to imagine not a cold lack of existence but one that's instead comfortably numb. "No harm can come to any of it, not to the city and not to you," the meditation continues. "Everything up here, going somewhere good. Everything up here, heading only where it should…" Not only can you be free but also somewhere safe too. It's the ultimate, luminous fantasy.