By: The Same Page Team
For the past year or so, members of the Same Page staff (namely Chris, Paul, Ian, Daniel and Nick) have organized a monthly book club, the Finer Things Club. On a Sunday evening the guys get together to discuss a selected work, drink a bottle of wine, and bust each other’s chops. The club rotates through its members to allow everyone a turn at selecting a book. Previous selections included Zone One by Colson Whitehead, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
This month the book that was read and discussed was Luminarium by Alex Shakar. Daniel made the pick.
I must admit I picked Luminarium basically at random. I was looking through recent Best of lists and trying to find a book that would grab my attention. I stumbled upon Alex Shakar’s work and after reading its synopsis involving digital worlds, family drama and the exploration of the philosophical unknown, I was intrigued. Now I suppose I should make some attempt here to discuss how Luminarium goes into all sorts of fascinating directions using detailed technical descriptions of brains (both biological and technological), various religious orders and the mythologies of India. So yes, while the plot evokes a very specific time and place (NYC, five years after 9/11) it gradually stretches itself to consider more timeless questions.
Fundamentally, though, what drew me to the book is the struggle at its core: a man dealing with the terminal illness of his twin brother. I admit I am a sucker for books with hugely flawed main characters on a journey of self discovery (and if a pretty girl is involved, all the better) so it was a great pleasure to suffer along with Fred Brounian as he stumbled further down into the abyss of his current reality. As the story so gracefully touches on Fred’s relationships with his family, his city and his understanding of the workings of the universe, I could not help but be captivated.
Alex Shakar explores themes of reality, technology, religion, and spirituality in his latest novel, Luminarium. The story blends these themes to showcase how our perceptions of the world are both created and manipulated. The story initially concentrates on these themes when Fred Brounian, our despondent story-teller, acts as a guinea pig and dons a helmet that sends complex electro-magnetic pulses through the brain that stimulate its different areas. The experiment hopes to determine what area of the brain develops or senses spirituality – the foundation of religious thought, or as Shakar eloquently notes, an experiment that finds “a faith without ignorance”. This is all interesting and can lead the reader in many different directions. However, Shakar does not seem to continue on this track for the remaining 300 or so pages, rather focusing on the story of Fred and his family.
Fred’s life is a mess, and his interaction with his family is interesting and makes a good story in itself. But, in our Swiss atom colliding world, I was firstly intrigued by the idea of finding the neurological origin of our spiritually, and maybe question why and how we are beings seeking spiritual health. Luminarium ends up focusing on Fred and his relationships with his brothers, parents, and Mira (our experimenter), at a time of societal and personal desolation.
Although engaging, I found the story occasionally drawn out and slow to develop. I sought broad world-bending arguments, but was left with what was merely a good story.
In Hindu mythology, Nara and Narayana were twin brothers, the incarnations of Vishnu. Nara is the human portion of this incarnation, while Narayana represents the Divine. Nara, as human, is therefore imperfect, while Narayana is Holy and pure. In Alex Shakar’s “Luminarium”, these twins are portrayed as Armenian-American duo Fred (Nara) and George (Narayana) Brounian. Fred has sinned and erred in judgment often. He has lost his girlfriend, his company and his life’s savings. George, meanwhile, lays in a coma in a New York City hospital. We meet George through flashbacks and dream sequences, and learn that he is very much the moral conscience of the Brounian clan. As the story progresses, the reader learns that George and Fred, while vastly different in many ways, are also intimately connected.
Duality is at the centre of Shakar’s latest offering. Particularly, the struggle between religion and science, and the real versus the virtual. Fred, along with many others in this story, is seeking answers in a confusing time in his life. He answers a newspaper ad promising the re-creation of peak experiences, such as religious awakenings. He enters an experiment that includes a virtual reality helmet and the prodding of various parts of his brain to make him feel happiness, or safety, or nostalgia. And therein lies the core question of “Luminarium”: Can virtual, man-made, or “fake” experiences make us feel something “real”? Shakar certainly seems to believe so.
As one of the few dissenting members of this book club regarding Luminarium I will do my best to articulate my issues with the novel. The novel intrigued me in its earlier stages when it appeared it would delve into complex philosophical subjects, examination of faith and its possible intersection with science. The novel introduced a psychological study to find a ‘faith without ignorance.’ In other words, it seemed like the author would explore the relationship between science and faith NOT from a contrarian perspective, as is the norm, but from a relational and co-dependent perspective. After a few compelling discussions and narrative explanations, the novelist seemed more content to rather explore the meaningless dreams of its protagonist with numerous appearances by Gandalf of Lord of the Rings fame. As someone who is always compelled by the individual, psychological, emotional, and sociological implications of faith, the author’s decision to abandon an ambitious feat left me extremely frustrated as a reader.
More specifically to the novel’s characters, George Brounian, the coma-induced twin brother of our main protagonist reveals the novel and author’s greatest flaw. Some of the most admired fictional characters in literary history are those who reveal and uphold their very real principles and convictions. For example, the unwavering devotion and commitment to essential human rights made Atticus Finch an unforgettable protagonist. Geez, even Harry Potter commits his entire literary life to upholding the principles of humility, kindness, and devotion to the good, even under the threat of death. George Brounian is horrified to see his own software creation used as part of the so-called ‘Military Entertainment Complex’ rather than his idealistic vision of his work helping to make the world a moral place. He is so distraught he posthumously injects malware to ensure its own self-destruction. Cool.
Then, in the final moments of the novel, his gives his brother Sam the remedy and his software continues to train people to kill and destroy [Editor’s Note: Isn’t it a emergency response simulation?]. George’s commitment to his own version of morality and idealism was his most admirable and endearing quality. The author’s decision to remove this quality made George yet another failure of a novel that seemed to have exciting possibilities when I turned the first page.