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Luminarium [Hardcover]

Alex Shakar
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Aug. 23 2011
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. A Washington Post notable book of the year, a New York Times editor's choice, named a best book of the year by Publishers WeeklyBooklist, the Austin Chronicle, and the Kansas City Star.

Fred Brounian and his twin brother, George, were once co-CEOs of a burgeoning New York City software company devoted to the creation of utopian virtual worlds. Now, in the summer of 2006, as two wars rage and the fifth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, George has fallen into a coma, control of the company has been wrenched away by a military contracting conglomerate, and Fred has moved back in with his parents. Broke and alone, he’s led by an attractive woman, Mira, into a neurological study promising to give him "peak" experiences and a newfound spiritual outlook on life. As the study progresses, lines between the subject and the experimenter blur, and reality becomes increasingly porous. Meanwhile, Fred finds himself caught up in what seems at first a cruel prank: a series of bizarre emails and texts that purport to be from his comatose brother.

Moving between the research hospitals of Manhattan, the streets of a meticulously planned Florida city, the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and the uncanny, immersive worlds of urban disaster simulation;  threading through military listserv geek-speak, Hindu cosmology, the maxims of outmoded self-help books and the latest neuroscientific breakthroughs, Luminarium is a brilliant examination of the way we live now, a novel that’s as much about the role technology and spirituality play in shaping our reality as it is about the undying bond between brothers, and the redemptive possibilities of love.

"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: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War

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Review

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 answersregarding 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

About the Author

Alex Shakar's novel The Savage Girl (HarperCollins, 2001) was selected as a New York Times Notable Book and a Booksense 76 Pick, and has been translated into six foreign languages. His story collection City in Love (HarperCollins, 2002) was selected as an Independent Presses Editors Pick of the Year. A native of Brooklyn, NY, he currently lives in Chicago with his wife, the composer Olivia Block.

Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
By John Kwok TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Difficult to read and, at times, to comprehend, "Luminarium" is Alex Shakar's literary effort in ascertaining the meaning of life via the medium of cyberspace. With its ample references to virtual reality and the Internet, "Luminarium" could be mistaken as a post-cyberpunk science fictional attempt in trying to understand today's almost Byzantine post-9/11 reality. But it isn't science fiction, nor should it be viewed as such, especially when there are other writers working from within that genre who have used successfully - as William Gibson has dubbed it - the "toolkit of science fiction" - as a means of obtaining a meaningful fictional grasp on reality; indeed I would contend that Gibson, in his latest "Blue Ant" trilogy ("Pattern Recognition", "Spook Country" and "Zero History") , is a more astute observer than Shakar with regards to American post-9/11 paranoia and our ongoing obsession with media culture. Instead, "Luminarium" works best as a stream-of-consciousness novel revolving around Fred Brounian, the now penniless co-founder of a software company whose mission was creating utopian virtual worlds; the firm's co-founder, his computer programming genius twin brother George, lies comatose in a New York, NY hospital bed dying from cancer. While Fred plots to reassert control of the company from a military contracting conglomerate, he also falls under the romantic spell of 9/11 widow Mira Egghart while participating in a neurological study that promises "peak" experiences and a spiritual outlook on life. Shakar treats readers on a whirlwind tour of subjects as diverse as virtual reality, computer coding, evolutionary ecology and state-of-the-art neurology as means of adding further dimensions to Fred's persona without losing himself or his readers in the details. Read more ›
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  48 reviews
25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but a chore to read Aug. 9 2011
By Lisa Love - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This was an interesting novel. Deeper than I expected it to be. It takes a brave author to dive into the vast realm of spirituality and build a compelling story around it. Shakar has quite a flair for seeing things in a unique light. The prose is wickedly smart. For the most part I enjoyed that aspect of it.

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.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a challenging but worthwhile read Aug. 23 2011
By Pat Loftfjeld - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The premise of LUMINARIUM is that spirituality is available to everyone--even people with no faith in anything. At the center of his spiritual awakening is a study Fred Brounian enrolls in that claims to try to help participants embrace "faith without ignorance"--the idea that it's possible to have a spiritual experience without believing in God (or taking any leaps, as it were). Fred is the perfect test subject. He has lost everything: the company of which he was CEO has been victim of a hostile takeover, and his job dissolved. His identical twin brother, counterpart in all things in life, has been in a non-responsive coma for six months. His money is gone, because he's paying for George's medical bills. His girlfriend dumped him, and he's living at home with his parents. Not only does he not have faith in anything, he is in a pretty generally hopeless place.

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.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Some Great Reward Jan. 3 2012
By Suzanne - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I was so taken by Fred Brounian, the unlikely hero of Alex Shakar's Luminarium, I was almost afraid to commit to Fred's ultra-inquiring, almost pathological puzzlement as he searched for answers in his urban, spiritual, video game-designing life. You see, I've been taken with POV characters like Fred before, mostly in other PoMo novels. They end up sucking the goodness out of anyone kind enough to bear them witness, and often the author gives no consoling irony or humor to make the reader understand it was a just a long, sort-of interesting exploration of unhappiness. But something told me Luminarium was different, that Fred was different; that he was actually taking unhappiness head on in his search for real joy, even if just a moment of it. And I was right.

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.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I Get It, But I Don't Like It Oct. 31 2011
By A reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Because I'm an Amazon Vine reviewer who was sent this book for free, I felt an obligation to finish it, and so I did. Otherwise I would have closed the cover within the first hundred pages. Despite the intellectual depth of the subject matter of this very ambitious work, I was left emotionally cold. It took almost to the very end of the book for me to care about the characters, and particularly the protagonist, Fred, through whose brain and eyes most of the action unfolds. The resolution of the mystery made sense, at least, but getting to it was arduous, and I only care about Fred a little bit more now than I did all the way through. The moment-by-moment focus on Fred's every memory, association, twitch and itch was more than tedious, particularly because the specifics of his life were not, in themselves, particularly interesting. Sad, really, because the plot per se was interesting, and could have provided the structure for a really fun and stimulating read.

Shakar is a skillful, poetic writer prone to humongous flights of fancy. In a matter of a few pages this poetry had descended into blather and by the end of the book it was the same few metaphors on top of each other in a predictable pile. Conservatively, about a third of this book could have been excised without damaging the plot in any way, and it would have made the trip a lot more pleasant (or at least briefer). Shakar addresses numerous large and provocative themes in this book: 9/11 and its aftermath, neurology and its relationship to consciousness and spirituality, our cultural obsession with virtual reality, and capitalism's co-optation of everything we invent. Whew, that's a lot! Based upon the sheer amount of research that went into LUMINARIUM, I assume that these are topics Shakar has been chewing on for a long time. This book was his attempt to digest and assimilate them all in one large stew. But for me as the reader, it was an overdone, overseasoned adult portion.

I've given the book 2 stars, which according to Amazon's rating system means "I don't like it." I read it all the way through, and I appreciate what Shakar was trying to do from an intellectual standpoint, but in all honesty I can't recommend the book.

[Arcane note to anyone who cares about this sort of thing: LUMINARIUM makes use of Hindu spirituality and the Japanese healing system, Reiki. I happen to be a Reiki master, and I found it interesting that Shakar wove Reiki into the plot in a central way. He did his homework, but he made an error. Hawayo Takata was NOT attuned by Dr. Usui. She did not even arrive in Japan until after his death.]
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sorry Dorothy, you are still in Kansas. Aug. 24 2012
By mateo52 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
For me, cracking the cover of a newly discovered literary work brings forth an emotional response of nearly the magnitude I used to experience during the course of relationships back when I was young, single, inquisitive and (self-aggrandizing) interesting. The optimism and wonderment if this was the one who would take me to unfathomable heights and for years to come remain a source of inspiration.

Naturally, with books the possibilities and opportunities are, and essentially should be, inexhaustible as there are so many varied interests where more information is sought and if one is fortunate, turned into knowledge. For about three quarters of this novel I thought it would become a memorable addition to my personal list of significant works in the same sense as Castenada's A Separate Reality and Ellison's Invisible Man but over the last quarter it became so timorous I felt like I would just ralph.

Through the vessel of primary character Fred Brounian, the compendium of life challenges he could no longer evade and by circumstance was relegated yet undeniably remained fundamentally reluctant to confront, Shakar consistently exhibited brilliance in articulation of kaleidoscopic imagery of metaphysical worlds and his meticulous research across a expansive range of subjects including religion and spirituality, human interaction, synchronicity, family dynamics, metaphysics , technology and technological integration, urban planning, corporate take-overs, and a host of other areas too numerable to recite here was vividly evident.

Much of the novel is alternatively retrospective and introspective as Brounian is propelled on his quest for personal fulfillment while viscerally intimidated by the distinct probability of irreversible divorcement from the genetic tether that has eternally linked him to his cancer stricken twin brother. Just as the jazz improvisational virtuosity of John Coltrane will not suit all listeners, some readers may very well construe Shakar's style to be a less than enjoyable variation of stream of consciousness as Brounian is often abruptly transitioned to thoughts only tangentially related to the current course of story events but in my opinion the interludes are so in the main commendably structured and seem less intrusive as the reader grows accustomed to rhythm of his writing the critical path is never obscured.

My criticism is as the novel approaches the denouement, Shakar seemed to acquiesce to the safety and security of empirical -such that it is- to arrive at answers to phenomenological questions when to borrow one of his terms 'the simplexity' of the journey itself into the void may have been pleasurable enough.
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