The story seems to sprawl in too many quirky directions, but the connections that develop are ingenious. While Fred subjects himself to the “God helmet” and throws himself into a meandering study of Hindu cosmology, he also tries to rejoin the gaming company that he and his brother started and lost. Long before he fell ill, George, who reminds me of the virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, envisioned an online experience that would improve people’s minds: a game of spiritual evolution played in an alternative reality called Urth. “The avatars’ immaterial nature could rub off on players over time,” he once told Fred, “temper their baser desires, coax their mindsets up the pyramid steps of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, from physiological and safety needs all the way up to beauty, truth, self-actualization.” But alas, now, in the ashes of 9/11, George is stuck at death’s door, and his enriching online platform is being re-engineered by a military contractor to produce ever more realistic simulations of terrorist attacks and reprisals. It’s a provocative critique of the way our culture continues to be warped by the boundless paranoia and taxpayer money that 9/11 unleashed.
Everywhere in these pages, Shakar explores different facets of belief and the manipulation of consciousness. While scrambling to rebuild his career at the Web company he lost, Fred keeps receiving prank text messages that appear to come from his comatose brother. And George’s spirit — the avatar of a “chemotherapy angel” — seems to be hacking the online game he once designed.
Fred’s mother throws herself into the Japanese healing practice of Reiki, which Fred would scorn more openly if it didn’t bring her — and her patients — so much comfort. Fred’s father, meanwhile, is an actor who abandons the part of Shakespeare’s sorcerer in “The Tempest” to concentrate on performing magic at birthday parties, creating little illusions for the children of dot-com millionaires who are creating more elaborate illusions for their online audiences. And finally, Fred’s younger brother, the ultimate realist, looks forward to leaving New York for the virtual pleasantness of Disney’s Celebration USA. At every layer, Shakar spins the various ways we willingly or unwillingly allow our perceptions to be enhanced or even distorted. “Reality’s up for grabs,” Fred remembers his twin saying. “Everybody’s grabbing.”
What kind of spiritual experience is really real? What’s the difference between an epiphany and a brain glitch? Such questions sound embarrassingly occult and irrelevant nowadays, but consider that this was once a primary theological issue for Americans. The early Puritans who came here were particularly concerned about distinguishing between genuine religious experience and what they disparaged as mere enthusiasm. Jonathan Edwards spoke of cultivating a spiritual sense that could perceive divinity, a kind of heightened reality that sounds strangely like the extraordinary virtual worlds so many hunger for online. American culture has moved far over the past 300 years, but how brilliantly all these old and new themes are linked in this strange, lush book.
“Luminarium” is as much a psychological thriller as a meditation on Eastern mythology, as much a satire of the war on terror as a lament for lost loved ones. The audience for a cerebral, melancholy novel like this is unlikely to be large, but intrepid readers will be grateful for the challenge.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.