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Luminarium Paperback – May 8, 2012
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A Letter from Author Alex Shakar
People have been asking me if my new novel, Luminarium, is a 9/11 novel, a post-9/11 novel, or perhaps a post-post-9/11 novel. The story begins in New York in the summer of 2006, closing in on the fifth anniversary, which for me marks the beginning of the end of the post-9/11 period. The hero, Fred Brounian, is on the verge of losing everything. After 9/11, financial backing for his virtual world software company dried up, propelling him into a bad business agreement with a military contracting conglomerate. Now, his company has been swindled away from him. His fiancé has left him. He’s lost his swank high-rise apartment and has had to move in with his parents. His twin brother—his best friend and business partner—lies dying in a cancer-induced coma. And he’s being harassed by prank emails claiming to be from said comatose twin. These events, and loneliness and desperation, propel him into a neuroscientific study in which “peak” spiritual experiences are induced artificially by means of an electromagnetic helmet. During the writing of Luminarium, I felt I was following the story’s needs and joys rather than imposing any will of my own; in retrospect, however, I can see that Fred’s story was in certain ways my own. While I wasn’t by any stretch a 9/11 “victim,” I too had been impacted by the event in certain ways. I think my experience, to a greater or lesser extent, accorded with that of a great many others, not only in New York but around the world, everywhere that anyone was feeling the repercussions of the changed world. I observed, at times with shell-shocked detachment, at other times with disgust, how everyone was scrambling to reposition themselves, to get out in front of the new order, to adapt, simply said, to cash in, with American flags or military entertainment software or 9/11 novels or whatever. I saw this in everyone from artists to pundits to businesspeople, this blind march to a tune beyond anyone’s control. I saw it in myself. Inevitably, my disgust became Fred’s own. My questions became: How do we deal with a changed world, with a universe that one day seemed with us and the next seems to turn against us and oppose us at every turn? And to what extent are our beliefs—our inner narratives of victimhood, of divine contracts, of ideological rightness—themselves to blame for the sicknesses of the world? To what extent are our very selves our own? The search for the answers to such questions ultimately becomes a spiritual one. For Fred, an experimental god helmet is the all-purpose tool for taking apart his experiences and building his existence anew. For me, there have been a few such tools, but the main one of the last few years has been Luminarium itself. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction.
“Heady and engrossing ... Shakar is such an engaging writer, bringing rich complications to the narrative.... At times, Luminarium reads like a Christopher Nolan or Wachowski brothers movie as scripted by Don DeLillo.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A brilliant book dogged in its pursuit of disassembling human experience in hopes of finding the essence, or at least an astoundingly prismatic view.”—Los Angeles Times
"A strikingly metaphysical novel that never dematerializes into misty cliches, a book to challenge the mystic and the doubter alike."—Ron Charles, Washington Post
“Something like an adult version of ‘Sophie’s World’ for readers clicking between ‘Mortal Kombat’ and Immanuel Kant, Shakar’s metaphysical novel explores different facets of belief and the manipulation of consciousness.” —Washington Post, "Notable Fiction of 2011"
“As Shakar suggests in the book, maybe the whole universe is one big computer game and we are all bit players plotting a course through the multiple parallel realities this adventure-seeking void generates. It's a fascinating idea on which to hinge this worthy novel.”—Seattle Times
“Luminarium is dizzyingly smart and provocative, exploring as it does the state of the present, of technology, of what is real and what is ephemeral. But the thing that separates Luminarium from other books that discuss avatars, virtual reality and the like is that Alex Shakar is committed throughout with trying, relentlessly, to flat-out explain the meaning of life. This book is funny, and soulful, and very sad, but so intellectually invigorating that you’ll want to read it twice.”—Dave Eggers
“This fascinating, hilarious novel, though set in the past, is the story of the future: technology has outlapped us, reality is blinking on and off like a bad wireless connection, the ones we love are nearby in one sense, but far away in another. Yet at the book’s galloping heart, it’s the story of what one man is willing to go through to find—in our crowded, second-rate space—something like faith. This novel is sharp, original, and full of energy—obviously the work of a brilliant mind.”—Deb Olin Unferth, author of Revolution
“Illusion is the substance of Luminarium, and worlds coming apart, though quietly, like the way Fred Brounian's comatose twin brother starts sending him emails from the Hindu hell of flawed angels. For all the collapsing bardos, there is a kindness that infuses this deeply engaging book.”—Zachary Mason, author of The Lost Books of the Odyssey
“I got the sensation that the book was expanding, encapsulating so much of what so many novels have tried to do in the past few years, both consuming and furthering the zeitgeist…a beautifully written big-questions novel.”—Time Out Chicago (Five star review)
“Shakar is a flesh-and-blood, intensely intelligent writer.”—Chicago Reader
“Encompassing, caring, provocative, and funny, Shakar's novel astutely dramatizes moral and spiritual dilemmas catalyzed by the frenetic post-9/11 cyber age, while love, as it always has, blossoms among the ruins.”—Chicago Tribune
“Luminarium is a crashing and rainy light-show that makes us vulnerable and scared, but also invigorated and, dare I say, hopeful.”—BOMBlog
“[A] wonderfully corrosive satire.”—Vogue.com
“[A] penetrating look at the uneasy intersection of technology and spirituality…Shakar’s blend of the business of cyberspace and the science of enlightenment distinguishes the novel as original and intrepid…Shakar’s prose is sharp and hilarious, engendering the reader’s faith in the novel’s philosophical ambitions. Part Philip K. Dick, part Jonathan Franzen, this radiant work leads you from the unreal to the real so convincingly that you begin to let go of the distinction.”—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
Editor's Choice Award 2011 —Booklist
“In his long-awaited second novel after the razor-sharp The Savage Girl (2001), Shakar takes measure of our post-9/11 existential confusion in a technology-avid but sciencephobic, ‘ever-complexifying world.’ A radiantly imaginative social critic, Shakar is also a knowledgeable and intrepid explorer of metaphysical and neurological mysteries. With beguiling characters trapped in ludicrous and revelatory predicaments, this is a cosmic, incisively funny kaleidoscopic tale of loss, chaos, and yearning.”—Booklist, Starred Review
"Luminarium is ... one of the most exciting and bracing books I've read this year, because it has the guts to ask questions—and even venture some answers—regarding issues most contemporary American fiction won't touch."—Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“Virtual and 'real' reality intertwine in unpredictable ways in this ingenious novel; to his credit, Shakar’s approach is more philosophical than sci-fi ... Shakar succeeds in a delicate balancing act here, securing the novel simultaneously (and paradoxically) in real, virtual and supernatural worlds.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Luminarium is a sprawling, brilliant look at the globally interconnected world we live in, and the protagonist, Fred Brounian, is a wonderful guide to it — a lovable Eeyore of a guy just trying to find a few answers (or at least figure out the right questions). I loved this one—maybe last year’s most ambitious novel, and certainly one of the strangest.” -Flavorwire
“If contemporary fiction has been striking you as a little too ‘lite,’ take a look at Luminarium.”
—Washington Post (Included in “My Favorite Novels of 2011” on Style Blog
"The Year in Books" selection. —Austin Chronicle
Praise for Alex Shakar and The Savage Girl:
“An exceptionally smart and likeable first novel that tries valiantly to ransom beauty from its commercial captors.”—Jonathan Franzen
“It’s exciting to meet a new novelist who’s not afraid of heights.”—The New York Times Book Review, a Notable Book of 2001
“The most sensitive, observant, and shrewdest writers are preternaturally attuned to the undercurrents that twist and warp society, and Shakar, a seer with extraordinary literary skills and a piquant sense of humor, will join the ranks of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Tom Wolfe.”—Chicago Tribune
From the Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
But it's not going to be a good fit for everyone. It's not an easy read, in either the depth of the text or in length. It's not a hard science-fiction novel, but I think it will appeal to the same sort of reader (lots of hard-science concepts and related terminology).
It's difficult to say what this book is about because it's about so many things: the meaning of life, the role of religion, how or if science explains religion, and the metaphysical that can't be explained any other way. "Faith without ignorance." It also explores the FPS/MMO realm via Urth, a virtual reality simulation of the real world, a look at just how real a fake world can get (and therefore become to people).
On the surface, this novel chronicles Fred Brounian's life struggles following the loss of his company and his mysteriously comatose twin-brother. But it also examines the nature of the universe, the nature of reality. It spans many quasi-religious viewpoints over the course of Fred's spiritual discovery, exploring a host of different spiritual/psychological ideologies in subtle ways. Hinduism plays a major role, along with reiki.
On an intellectual level I liked this novel. I enjoyed his sessions in the NYU study. I found the parallels between neuroscience and commonly perceived spiritual experiences very interesting. The mysterious email thread starts off well but goes way too far out on a limb as far as suspension of disbelief goes, which is the case for the last third of the novel.
Good character development. I really liked Mira. Very disappointed that Shakar chose to perpetuate the notion women are attracted to men who stalk them though.
Unfortunately, the novel's entertainment value just wasn't there. It's written in a stream of consciousness way, which at times is rather distracting from what's actually happening in the book. I thought a bit too much emphasis was placed on spirituality, to the point where it felt forced and artificial. A few elements were too far-fetched.
I often found myself wondering where the story was going. It touches on a lot of things as Fred goes about his life, but it never feels like it goes anywhere. Things just seem to happen, ones that aren't particularly interesting either. The length of the book is partly to blame. I'd estimate it's 150,000+ words. With the exception of one plot thread, nothing really happens in the book. Since this is a l-o-n-g book, there's really no excuse. Like a true spiritual journey, it's rather aimless and fairly boring.
In conclusion: deep on intellect but not much of a page-turner. The total package of the novel didn't do much to interest me. It was very hard to stick with it because I didn't care what was happening. I would've rather read a non-fiction book on the same subject.
Alex Shakar has jam-packed LUMINARIUM with arcane tidbits about global religions and concepts of spirituality. I had to force myself to read slowly to make sure I was absorbing all the interesting details, which coalesce into a powerful general theory about human needs and connections. I also really appreciated the dynamic amongst the brothers (Fred, his twin George, and their younger brother Sam). Although the plot begins in a dark valley of the hero's life, the story is rich with themes of family, moral rightness, hope, and transcendence.
The setting of Luminarium is weird and dark like many Sci-Fi, PoMo novels, but funny from the very first few pages, and that's where my love for the book began. The characters are treated with real respect and kindness, even in the midst of crisis and unending despair. There is soaring science and difficult parallel universes, but the world of Luminarium is forever shifting: sometimes it's bleak, sometimes hopeful, sometimes impossibly transforming, and sometimes downright ordinary, so much so that you might think you're reading a Russian novel. But you're not. Because Fred is both acutely aware of his alienation, and fiercely pursuant of its end, his suffering, the reader knows, is temporary. The salvation comes in its quirky way, way more like real life than fiction.
When post modernism ends, Luminarium will be the first sign of life.