Days after finishing Alex Shakar’s “Luminarium,” I’m still stumbling around the house in a mixture of wonder and awe. His new novel considers how our perceptions of the world are manipulated and controlled. I can’t claim to have understood all of it, but I did find it completely absorbing, and anyone hungry for a deeply philosophical novel that, nonetheless, maintains its humility will find here a story worth wrestling with.
You know who you are: You left “The Matrix” and “Inception” dazzled but wishing for a little less computer-generated wizardry and a lot more articulation of the movies’ ideas (which also indicates that you should never become a Hollywood producer). In “Luminarium” those ideas — about the nature of reality and the interplay of technology and perception — are explored with great care and maturity.
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.
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.
By Alex Shakar
SoHo. 432 pp. $25