Rather than a trip back to your undergraduate bull sessions (cue the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”), Shakar has set his story against the background of personal and national grief. The result is a strikingly metaphysical novel that never dematerializes into misty cliches, a book to challenge the mystic and the doubter alike.
Even the most enthusiastic summary, though, risks making this book sound gloomy and cheesy. I opened it because of Shakar’s previous novel, a dystopic satire of market research called “The Savage Girl,” which came out just days before 9/11. Weak sales reportedly caused HarperCollins to drop Shakar, but fortunately, the indie publishing house SoHo has picked up this brilliant writer. Now he’s produced something like an adult version of “Sophie’s World” for readers clicking between Mortal Kombat and Immanuel Kant.
“Luminarium” opens in the long shadow of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. It’s 2006, and Fred Brounian’s life is a wreck: His beloved twin brother, George, is lying in a coma, dying of cancer. The online gaming business they built together has been effectively stolen from them by a large military contractor involved in the war on terror.
Friendless, penniless and depressed, Fred signs up to be a human guinea pig at NYU, where he can make $50 an hour by donning a helmet covered in wires to stimulate different parts of his brain. The scientists in charge hope to determine the neurological locus of spirituality. Every week, Fred sits down in an old vinyl chair and finds himself jolted to feel at one with the universe or to experience rapture or to sense the presence of God.
This sounds like the kind of study Richard Dawkins and his flock would cite to prove the imaginary basis of religious experience, but Shakar isn’t preaching to the atheism choir. Instead, Fred’s episodes in the lab — described here in luminous, visionary language — send him on a quest to understand the nature of spirituality. And what makes that quest so fascinating is that he’s determined to find “a faith without ignorance . . . a foothold of reason in that sheer cliff of spirit.”
The great pleasure of Shakar’s writing, besides his luxuriously cool style, is his ability to weave old metaphysical issues through a plot electrified with contemporary details. Like Richard Powers’s
“Generosity,” which investigates the genetics of happiness, or Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s “36 Arguments for the Existence of God,” which explores the psychological tendency toward belief, “Luminarium” is a ruminative novel to plumb your most transcendent questions.