It seems fitting that Alex Shakar would open his novel, Luminarium, with an invitation.Â Not your garden variety party invitation, mind you.Â Something a bit more oblique, less straightforward.Â But an invitation nonetheless.
Picture yourself stepping into a small, cuboid room. In the center squats an old recliner, upholstered in black vinyl. To the chairâ€™s back is affixed a jointed metal arm, possibly on loan from a desk lamp. At the end of the arm, where the bulb and shade would have gone, hangs instead a sparkly gold motorcycle helmet, a vintage, visorless number with a chin strap.
Itâ€™s an appeal to step fully into the shoes of one Fred Brounian, a down-on-his-luck loser and ex-CEO who lives with his parents in a limbo of depression and unemployment.Â Fred has lost his company, his job, fiancÃ©, and now stands to lose his twin brother, George, who is comatose and in the final stages of terminal cancer.Â Having lost all else, caring for George occupies most of Fredâ€™s time and finances, leaving him both destitute and desperate.
To amend his pecuniary situation, Fred decides to participate in an experiment in which his brain will be electronically manipulated to reproduce sensations associated with states of religious ecstasy.Â It is at this vulnerable moment that we join Fredâ€”or, perhaps it is more correct to say we are joined to Fredâ€”and it is this initial experiment and its mind-expanding aftereffects that propels the ensuing narrative and palls the novel with a surreal haze.
Which brings us back to that second-person opening, our invitation.Â For what follows is a shift firmly into Fredâ€™s point-of-view and an exploration of our nationâ€™s own post-9/11 identity crisis and the increasingly blurry lines between the real and the virtual, religion and science, our flesh-and-blood selves and the electronic avatars we project into the aether. It was smart of Shakar to firmly anchor the reader to flesh and bone when the novelâ€™s themes are so prone to drift into abstraction.
Indeed, the story is at its best when these themes bubble up organically through action and dialog.Â For example, this scene where Fred, still feeling the lingering aftershocks of a recent experiment and flush with confidence at the prospect of getting a job, develops an impromptu alter-ego:
He thought heâ€™d said Fred. Or thatâ€™s what heâ€™d meant to say. Or maybe heâ€™d meant, Oh, call me Fred. He was already nodding before he processed that final o. Beyond humiliated, pretty much giving up at that point, he just kept nodding, resigned to the secretary calling him by a name that could have belonged to some hobbit mob henchman.
â€œOK,â€ she said, to his wonderment, without apparent sarcasm, â€œFreddo.â€ Coming from her slyly smiling lips, the name sounded almost rakish.
â€œAnd you are?â€ he said. Freddo said.
â€œChristine.â€ Freddo drew out the last syllable, like he didnâ€™t want it to end.
The exchange speaks to the mercurial nature of identity, the slipperiness of personality, how difficult it is to ever pin someone down to one set of characteristics.Â Even when that someone is you.
And, as the novel progresses, Fred finds the people around him ever-shifting, transmuting from the familiar to inversions or permutations of their former selves.Â His brother George is sending him mysterious messages and appears to be sabotaging their former company even as he lies comatose in the hospital.Â Meanwhile, his younger brother, the workaholic Sam, has transformed their former company from an idealistic virtual reality paradise called Urth to a military and emergency training environment and who seems to be setting Fred up for failure and humiliation.Â To complicate matters, Fredâ€™s love interest turns out to be hiding something he never anticipated.
Each of these story lines is interesting in its own way and itâ€™s a credit to Shakar that he develops characters that are capable of surprising us (and Fred) in ways that are not initially obvious but entirely sensible in hindsight. This parade of morphing personalities brings to mind this passage from Roger Ebertâ€™s 2003 review of Tarkovskyâ€™s Solaris:
When we love someone, who do we love? That person, or our idea of that person? â€¦Although other persons no doubt exist in independent physical space, our entire relationship with them exists in our minds. When we touch them, it is not the touch we experience, but our consciousness of the touch.
These questions of duality and our own frustrated attempts to drill down to the core of reality are suggested throughout the narrative.Â Which brings me to my few disappointments with the novel.Â Namely that Shakar can be a bit heavy-handed and tends to beat one over head with his motifs: in this novel alone we have twins, science and religion, magic/illusion, reality and virtual reality, twin towers, the two sides of the human brain, etcâ€¦Â A little of this stuff can go a long way and after a while I wanted to raise the white flag and say: â€œOkay!Â I get it already.â€
Worse, however, is Shakarâ€™s tendency to ply us with long lists of questions and saggy interior monologues in lieu of action or image.Â This predilection leads to plenty sloggy passages like this:
â€¦heâ€™d been reading about the anthropic cosmological principle, how the universe was so finely tuned for life as to arouse suspicion: how, if there had been four extended dimensions instead of three, planets would have flown right into their suns; how, if the cosmic expansion rate were one part in a million billion less, the universe would have remained a sweltering 3,000Âº Celsius and collapsed back in on itself billions of years ago; how the chance of such cosmological constants having emerged at random was something on the order of every member of his high school class winning the lottery and getting struck by lightning in alphabetical order. If some greater force and purpose were at work in all this, he wondered, then why all the subterfuge? Why all the arbitrariness of quantum fluctuation and genetic mutation? Why the absurdity of brains that could simulate some sense of that greater life only when they misfired? What good was a truth that could be perceived only through delusion? How would one ever really know what the truth was, in such a system? How would one ever know from one moment to the next the right thing to do, the right way to go?
Did you get through all that?Â Not only is this section tedious, but it also leaves the reader feeling as though he is being led by the nose.Â And further, these are questions that are raised with greater economy elsewhere via action and metaphor.
Still, despite these faults, I found Luminarium to be a smart and moving read.Â On one hand a ghost story and meditation on post-9/11 grief.Â On the other, a paen to the bonds of family and the ties that bind all of humanity.Â The way we all move to the future while looking ever back to our past.
~Randy Brzoska is a graduate of the Wilkes University Creative Writing program andÂ spends his time at homeÂ endlessly finishing his first novel, reading,Â and hoarding goonch catfish.Â (He alsoÂ currently teaches at King’s College and adores his wife and son.)~