In the summer of 2006, Fred Brounian's prospects are dim. He ruefully describes himself as "an ex-CEO refugee from a hostile takeover with a brother in the hospital." To be exact, it's his identical twin, George, who's comatose in the hospital. Fred is lonely, directionless and broke.
The twins and their younger brother Sam had been on top of the world after creating Urth, an early virtual reality program or "online utopian dreamworld" based, they proudly boasted, on "real physics." Urth should have made them rich, and thus free to continue innovating for the good of humankind. Instead, "A week before 9/11, they'd had all the financial backing they needed. A week after, they had none."
Shakar could be writing about himself. His first novel, "The Savage Girl," a scouring and prescient investigation into the rampant commercialization of the 1990s, earned him an impressive advance, followed by exalted critical praise. But when the book was released a week after 9/11, it was lost in the surge of grief, fear and rage. Now, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Shakar returns with an even more powerful and profound novel, marked by an involving and canny mix of metaphysics, morality, comedy and romance.
Fred is a classic well-intentioned bumbler. Trapped in a purgatory of hope and dread as he haunts the hospital, waiting for any hint of consciousness in his twin and guiding light, he signs up for an experimental treatment with New York University's department of neural studies in which the brain is subjected to "mild but complex electromagnetic impulses." Soon he is seated in an old, ratty vinyl recliner with a strangely modified motorcycle helmet on his head, tended to by Mira, a "quirkily hot science nerd chick" and a character with significant secrets.
In flashbacks we learn that the trusting Brounian brothers — George the genius, Fred the slacker, Sam the regular guy — hastily redesigned Urth for use in disaster training, attracting the aggressive acquisitive attention of Armation, a leader in the burgeoning military-entertainment complex. George was appalled that Urth, meant to raise consciousness, was instead "desensitizing people. Not just to violence. But to reality itself."
Fred's ensuing madcap and complex misadventures raise the unnerving question: What precisely is reality?
His helmet-induced visions include out-of-body and near-death experiences and a persistent sense of oneness with others that results, in one painfully hilarious episode, in his arrest. Mira tries to explain the purely neurological sources of these confounding perceptions, identifying different sections of the brain and explaining what happens when they're scrambled. Her quixotic hope is that by combining science with the emotions that the helmet's journeys engender, participants will develop "a faith without ignorance."
Fearing that he has little of the former and far too much of the latter, Fred spends hours researching online, providing readers with fascinating forays into Hindu cosmology, Zen Buddhism, twinship and synchronicities, Carl Jung's collective unconscious, "apophenia" or "the ability of the mind to find meaning and significance where there isn't any," and the prophesied singularity, which will occur when computer technology evolves itself beyond the reach of human intelligence.
And what to make of the spooky emails Fred is receiving, allegedly, from his comatose twin?
As he did during childhood, Fred performs magic acts of uniquely disquieting psychological complexity and mystical wonder with his father, Vartan, a pot-smoking, struggling actor and an old hand at altering reality. Holly, Fred's mother, works a different sort of magic as a Reiki master, bringing the Japanese healing practice to the streets of this catastrophically wounded city.
Addled and anxious, Fred converts a vintage mainframe computer into the "Prayerizer," which generates continual digital prayers. He runs amok in Orlando, base of the military-entertainment complex and "the new Los Alamos in the war on terror." And he pursues chameleonic Mira, all the while struggling to discern and grapple with ever-morphing reality.
An intricately structured, imaginative, epistemological, and wildly eventful tale of illusion and longing, "Luminarium" fizzes with ideas, social concerns and metaphoric splendor in its exploration of doubling — in the twin towers, the two halves of the brain, mind and body, fact and belief, good and evil, life and death, aloneness and communion. 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.
By Alex Shakar
Soho, $25, 432 pages