As his twin languishes in a coma, a man seeks spiritual enlightenment and meaning, aided by texts and emails that seem to be coming from his brother. Alex Shakar’s Luminarium is a beautifully written book that mashes up philosophy, pop culture, recent past, quantum mechanics and a story about a man whose twin brother is dying.
It is the summer of 2006 and Fred Brounian is not in a good place. The video game company he and his brothers founded has been stolen by a military company that uses its game engine to run extremely realistic training scenarios for its wannabe warriors. His fiancée Melanie has broken up with him and taken up with someone new (or so he’s heard). And despite being in a coma, his dying twin brother George has been sending him a series of enigmatic emails—Help Avatara—that mean nothing to him.
Fred joins a group studying spirituality, and finds the experience alternately liberating and frightening, made more complicated by his attraction to Mira, the woman facilitating it. He reatreats into the cranky comfort of his relationship with his father Vartan, a failed actor but decent musician who performs at kids’ birthday parties in an act that George conceived when he and Fred were in high school.
This nook is a dazzling, dizzying romp through pop culture, recent history, East Indian myth, quantum physics and a whole spectrum of other elements. It’s lovely to see a story in which the myth is not the same old Catholic and Celtic tropes that have been done to death, and the author does a graceful job of integrating the myth and the mundane. (He’s particularly good with the various game scenarios and the texts and messages Fred gets from … wherever he’s getting them from.)
Luminarium works on many levels. At its simplest, it’s the story of a man whose life is falling apart, making him ripe for the “faith without ignorance” spiritual awakening that Miri is offering. It’s the story of a man coping with the impending death of his twin, his other self. It’s a love story. It’s a tale of quantum revelation in which “real physics” coexists alongside things that could not possibly happen, and yet do.
It all sounds very artsy/fartsy in a “lit-fic” kind of way, but it isn’t ponderous at all. That’s partly because the writer sees the absurd side of things and in between the genuine search for meaning and peace, there are some hilarious moments. Some of them, to be sure, are blackly hilarious but the humor is there nonetheless. (The scene where Fred, the former co-CEO of the game company Urth, confronts a Human Resources wonk who suggests his skills might be good for one of the entry-level jobs they have is priceless.) One of the most intense conversations about spirituality occurs when Fred is dead drunk and his godfather Manfred is waxing on about Mu while munching fries at the bar of a Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.
Among the author’s targets are the relentlessly production-designed town of Celebration, Florida where there don’t seem to be any inhabitants under 60, trendy bars and their denizens, the military-entertainment complex, and Reiki. (Fred’s mother Holly is a practitioner and in one very oddball sequence, she enlists Fred’s aid in “healing” a street in New York.
Then there are the magic shows Fred performs with his pot-smoking, failed actor father. The magic act was George’s idea and it’s been the only income Vartan has had for years. (The writer has given Vartan a detailed backstory that includes his one almost-breakthrough performance as an Italian priest who lives the Church.)
It is, in fact, the details that really sell this story, rooting it in reality even as it takes off in flights of fancy. We are reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s oft-quoted observation that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It’s hard to know how to categorize this story—magical realism? New weird? (The story shares some aesthetic similarities to the work of China Mieville and Chuck Palanuik as well, particularly his novel about evangelists.)
There’s some heady stuff going on here, especially in Fred’s inner musings, but a lot of that can just inform the story going on at the surface, which is interesting enough on its own because the characters are really likable and relatable. The shadow of 9/11 looms over the story in an interesting way and there’s a twist in the story that relates to that event that readers will probably not see coming.
The characters are extremely dimensional. We delight in finding out Mira has a tattoo (and rather a strange one). We’re intrigued to know that Sam is trying to reinvent himself with his move to Florida. Fred is a very likeable guy. His story is told in both a traditional, straightforward narrative way and in a series of flashbacks to moments that shaped him. These flashbacks blend seamlessly into the technology-induced near-death experience he has while under Mira’s care.
A large part of Fred’s character is the voice in his head he refers to as “the inner George.” He can channel George any time he likes, which makes the messages he gets from him seem almost normal. We “get” him totally, but we also understand his tormented little brother who has thrown himself headlong into Christian dating and Christian websites and the manufactured Midwestern dream of the Disney manufactured of Celebration.
All of the characters—from the smallest (the nasty-minded guy who wants to know if George and Fred ever “shared a chick”) to the most important (Fred, his younger brother Sam, Mira, George)—come off the page in vivid detail. The ending is rather quiet after all the build-up but it is life-affirming. We’re left with a message of love. This meditation on technology and spiritualityis a powerful story about a quest for enlightenme that turns in the end, to a search for simple peace.