WINNER: The Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Fiction

EDITOR’S CHOICE: The New York Times Book Review, Booklist,

NOTABLE/BEST BOOKS OF 2011: The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, The Kansas City Star,  Austin Chronicle, Ourmaninboston, Chicago Center for Literature and Photography

Fred Brounian and his twin brother, George, were once co-CEOs of a burgeoning New York City software company devoted to the creation of utopian virtual worlds. Now, in the summer of 2006, as two wars rage and the fifth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, George has fallen into a coma, control of the company has been wrenched away by a military contracting conglomerate, and Fred has moved back in with his parents. Broke and alone, he’s led by an attractive woman, Mira, into a neurological study promising to give him “peak” experiences and a newfound spiritual outlook on life. As the study progresses, lines between the subject and the experimenter blur, and reality becomes increasingly porous. Meanwhile, Fred finds himself caught up in what seems at first a cruel prank: a series of bizarre emails and texts that purport to be from his comatose brother.

Moving between the research hospitals of Manhattan, the streets of a meticulously planned Florida city, the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and the uncanny, immersive worlds of urban disaster simulation; threading through military listserv geek-speak, Hindu cosmology, the maxims of outmoded self-help books and the latest neuroscientific breakthroughs, Luminarium is a brilliant examination of the way we live now, a novel that’s as much about the role technology and spirituality play in shaping our reality as it is about the undying bond between brothers, and the redemptive possibilities of love.




“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. . . . [A]nyone 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 Inceptiondazzled 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. . . . 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.”
–The Washington Post

“[Shakar’s] first novel, “The Savage Girl,” a scouring 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. . . .  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. Encompassing, caring, provocative, and funny, 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.”
–The Chicago Tribune

“[Henry] James is never mentioned in Alex Shakar’s heady and engrossing new novel, Luminarium, but he haunts the book, which grapples extensively with his pragmatist ideas about truth and their application to religion. The novel’s protagonist, Fred Brounian, has agreed to participate in an experiment organized by members of New York University’s department of neural science, who are seeking to reproduce ‘the “peak” experiences commonly associated with spiritual awakening’ by stimulating his brain with ‘mild but complex electromagnetic impulses.’ To this end, Fred will undergo out-of-body, near-death and ecstatic experiences, for each of which he will be given a precise neurological explanation. The researchers hope to offer Fred the ‘self-efficacy and quality of life’ that come with religious experience without the baggage of belief, but the idea that such vivid feelings have no real correspondence to the objective world winds up bringing him something more like existential despair. ‘Why the absurdity of brains that could simulate some sense of that greater life only when they misfired?’ he asks himself. ‘What good was a truth that could be perceived only through delusion?’ This premise, however ingenious, might have yielded a schematic novel of ideas, if Shakar weren’t so committed to showing his readers a good time. . . . [The story] should all be too much, but finally it isn’t — because Shakar is such an engaging writer, bringing rich complications to the narrative. In one flashback to the time before he became comatose, George coins the term ‘holomelancholia’ to describe ‘the inevitable disappointment of virtual worlds.’ ‘Mark my words,’ he adds. ‘It’ll be in the DSM by 2021.’ It’s a neat turn: Shakar questions the possibility that we can be happy with a truth we know we have invented, while tweaking the medical materialism that would place this ‘inevitable disappointment’ in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.”
–The New York Times Book Review

“The fantasy of ferreting out truth in the whorls of information available to us is explored in Alex Shakar’s grandly ambitious second novel, Luminarium. Weighing in at more than 400 pages, the story is centered on twin brothers Fred and George Brounian (the latter cancer-ridden and in a coma) and on restless searches for meaning in several realms: some physical and mapped, others more abstract. It’s a brilliant book dogged in its pursuit of disassembling human experience in hopes of finding the essence, or at least an astoundingly prismatic view. . . . Shakar is fearless in what existential thread he will follow — the bigger the concept, the bigger his bite. . . . Notably, 9/11 was the very event that clouded the reception of Shakar’s first novel, The Savage Girl. The satire on the dark side of consumerist culture published around the time of the attacks was critically praised but hastily dismissed as a totem of an ironic age no longer appropriate, a bit of jujitsu from the wily zeitgeist that could’ve been taken right out of The Savage Girl. But in Luminarium, the specter of the two buildings and the image of them tumbling down, sending out noxious plumes of dust from a once-seemingly indestructible symbol of American life gives the novel one of its most beautiful and haunting images.”
–The Los Angeles Times

“The first time Fred Brounian sits for the medical study—reclined in a comfortable chair, electrodes on his chest and helmet on his head—he has the type of experience that people pay gurus big money for. His consciousness expands, first merging with the chair and—though this happens later, while walking down the street—with nearby strangers . . . I had a similar experience while reading Luminarium, Chicago author Alex Shakar’s second novel and first in the ten years following his debut, The Savage Girl. That’s not to say that I became one with my chair, but rather I got the sensation that the book was expanding, encapsulating so much of what so many novels have tried to do in the past few years, both consuming and furthering the zeitgeist. . . . Luminarium [is] the quintessential contemporary novel. While it’s become fashionable for many so-called literary authors to dabble in the genres, Shakar incorporates elements of science fiction without the Frankenstein scars. And the questions the book raises are the kind we expect from the social-realist novels with birds on their covers, imploring us with their importance. Luminarium is a beautifully written big-questions novel that never gets distracted by its own interrogation, nor seems intent on impressing itself. Here we encounter the cagey allure of the faith demanded by both new spirituality movements and technology. Shakar isn’t so much satirizing the search for faith as he is documenting how treacherous, self-serious and silly it can be. The plot and themes are interwoven seamlessly, even as the various characters fray at their edges.”
–Time Out Chicago (5 stars)

“[M]onumentally ambitious . . . one of the most exciting and bracing books I’ve read this year, because it has the guts to ask questions – and even venture some answers – regarding issues most contemporary American fiction won’t touch. . . . Fred’s growing insight also produces brilliant riffs every few pages, on topics including a morally corrupt gaming industry dubbed the Military-Entertainment Complex; the changing architecture of New York City; “The Lord of the Rings”; the self-help movement; doubt and faith; the relationship between gated communities and fanaticism; and the relationship between technology and consumerism. . . . Although Shakar is much too smart and circumspect to say so directly, we ultimately come to see that Fred’s broadening horizon is less about electric shock treatment than about how we read – and, specifically, how we balance our quest for meaning with the courage to admit that meaning is never simple or singular.”
–Milwaulkee Journal-Sentinel

“Reading Alex Shakar’s new novel Luminarium is like running a marathon in a thunderstorm. It reads and flows with a certain exigency that won’t make you want to leave it for too long on your coffee table or on the floor space next to your bed. The novel follows Fred Brounian through various life troubles, girl troubles, technologically mind-blowing neuropsychological studies, and a personal quest to discover nothingness as a sort of self-actualization, all while struggling to keep alive the corporately-taken-over software company founded by he and his now-comatose twin brother. Luminarium is a crashing and rainy light-show that makes us vulnerable and scared, but also invigorated and, dare I say, hopeful.”

“[I]f you like to feel the intelligence of the author behind a story that addresses contemporary subjects, this one is for you. .  .  .  [It] is conveyed in some of the most consummate prose I have read. Fred’s out of body adventures, brought on by the “God helmet” electrodes, are explained to him in terms of the targeted stimulation of various lobes in his brain. But descriptions of the ways Fred experiences feeling one with the universe, being overwhelmed by love for strangers and so forth, are comparable to those found in the books of Carlos Castaneda (which, starting with The Teachings of Don Juan in 1968, deal with a young man’s training by a Mexican shaman leading him to spiritual power and an ability to see a deeper reality than what is apparent to the senses.) Fred must walk the streets of New York City while in these altered states, adding a bit of humor to the process. Though Fred’s search for meaning in the midst of the chaos and anxiety of his current life leaves him mostly confused, Shakar’s skills as a writer keep the reader from getting lost. . . . Whatever your beliefs or dreams, Luminarium will challenge you and make you think about where our world is going. In our current state of rapid technological advance, Alex Shakar posits that we still need spiritual answers, that family and love matter, but loss and misunderstandings confront us at every turn. It is a wonder how he made such potentially weighty ideas so entertaining.”

“Shakar brings a host of profound concerns to this inventive, metaphysical, funny and caring novel set in post-9/11 New York City, ground zero for moral and spiritual paradoxes, in which one twin brother is in a coma and the other is desperately seeking healing and direction as the virtual world they worked so hard to create is commandeered by the “military-entertainment complex.”
–The Kansas City Star

“[A] wonderfully corrosive satire.”

“A heartfelt and frequently ingenious work of beauty and sophistication.”

“The effusive mainstream reviews—from the likes of Dave Eggers and The New York Times—for Alex Shakar’s second novel Luminarium might put off the very audience who would appreciate it the most. Can a book blessed by the highest echelons of the literary establishment really be that good? Yes, it can. A dense, lyrical speculative novel, Luminariumexplores the intersection of technology and spirituality in a riveting story that’s as much about the bond between brothers as it is about virtual worlds and Hindu cosmology.”

“Luminarium is a profound, demanding, and very funny book from a writer unafraid to take chances.”
–Texas Observer

“Shakar is a flesh-and-blood, intensely intelligent writer.”
–Chicago Reader

[O]f all the 9/11 novels I’ve now read, this is arguably the best of them precisely because it takes such a sideways look at the subject, essentially sneaking up on the issue by instead concentrating on the co-founder of a Second-Life-type MMORPG that’s been co-opted by Homeland Security, who rapidly unravels after starting to receive what seems like a series of otherworldly online messages from his comatose twin brother, while simultaneously participating in an academic neurological study that may or may not be slowly granting him psychic powers. [. . .] Shakar almost magically manages to pull together these and dozens more widely scattered references into one coherent whole by the end, ultimately delivering a profound message about the schism between faith and technology in a world of 3D avatars and planes slamming into skyscrapers.”

“[W]hat Shakar wants to give us readers is a faith of our own. George, alive or dead, has faith in the ability to change the world, even if it is through a meta-as-hell online Earth-simulation; Fred has faith that his brother George deserves the chance to live; the rest of the world has faith that it has a right to exist. The intertwining realities mean no single reality has more meaning, no way to objectively state this is how things are. There is something delicate about Shakar’s prose, a deftly handled precision of such monumental ideas [...] Shakar asks questions without asking, forcing us to consider ourselves.”
–Barn Owl Review

“Shakar follows up his well-received The Savage Girl with this penetrating look at the uneasy intersection of technology and spirituality. As the five-year anniversary of 9/11 looms, 30-something New Yorker Fred Brounian struggles with the impending death of his hospitalized twin brother, George; the unscrupulous buyout of his Second Life–like company; and the scientific experiments he undergoes that are designed to induce spiritual insight. While Fred’s coming-to-terms with George’s situation makes for traditional drama, Shakar’s blend of the business of cyberspace and the science of enlightenment distinguishes the novel as original and intrepid: Urth Inc., Fred and George’s company, is essentially swallowed by megacorporation Armation, which intends to use Urth’s technology to build virtual training environments for the military. Meanwhile, Fred is an emotionally vulnerable guinea pig in Mira Egghart’s neurological experiments to create a “spiritual odyssey, encoded as easily as a few songs on an iPod.” As George nears his end, Fred falls for Mira, learns to meditate, and pursues the perpetrator of a vast cyberscheme threatening to undo both him and Urth. Shakar’s prose is sharp and hilarious, engendering the reader’s faith in the novel’s philosophical ambitions. Part Philip K. Dick, part Jonathan Franzen, this radiant work leads you from the unreal to the real so convincingly that you begin to let go of the distinction.”
–Publishers Weekly (starred)

“Fred’s twin, George, is in a coma in a New York hospital five years after the destruction of the Twin Towers. Fred is not only grieving but is also rudderless and broke after losing Urth, their ahead-of-the-curve virtual-world venture, to a rapacious corporation. Fred performs poetic magic acts with his out-of-work actor father; his mother practices Reiki, a spiritual healing technique; and his younger brother, Sam, works feverishly to ready Urth for their overlords at Armation in Orlando, headquarters for the burgeoning “Military-Entertainment Complex.” Desperate for guidance, Fred signs up for an experimental neurological treatment involving electromagnetic impulses administered by an enigmatic young woman named Mira. While enduring bewildering visions, out-of-body experiences, and other assaults on reality, Fred falls in love, programs an old mainframe to run continual prayers, and tries not to panic as he receives cryptic e-mails from beyond. In his long-awaited second novel after the razor-sharp The Savage Girl (2001), Shakar takes measure of our post-9/11 existential confusion in a technology-avid but sciencephobic, “ever-complexifying world.” A radiantly imaginative social critic, Shakar is also a knowledgeable and intrepid explorer of metaphysical and neurological mysteries. With beguiling characters trapped in ludicrous and revelatory predicaments, this is a cosmic, incisively funny kaleidoscopic tale of loss, chaos, and yearning.”
–Booklist (starred)

“Virtual and “real” reality intertwine in unpredictable ways in this ingenious novel; to his credit, Shakar’s approach is more philosophical than sci-fi.  George and Fred Brounian are identical twins, and despite their genetic identity, George is clearly the more brilliant of the two, a visionary who has grown up on video and computer games. One side effect of his background is that he’s motivated, by the defects of reality, to transform games into something more vivid than reality itself, so in the late ’90s he gets the idea for a simulation called “Urth” and wishes to make it a form of “purer existence,” realer than real. Just when he has the financial angels lined up, 9/11 comes about and the financing vanishes, but then the “Military-Entertainment Complex” begins to show untoward interest in the possibilities that George has raised. George, however, wants to use computer gaming as a different form of social engineering, to “steer players toward constructive and nonaggressive behaviors…rather than amassing and plundering and hoarding their resources.” Fred is more pragmatic businessman than innovator, and he sees the worth of his brother’s creative genius. Also joining them is Sam, their intense younger brother, with an overly deep investment in the avatars of the games George and Fred develop. But George has recently lapsed into a coma, and Fred starts getting some odd e-mails that seem to come from some ethereal world—“Avatara” is their subject line, and they’re signed “George.” As a form of therapy, Fred begins to visit alternative worlds and has dream visions induced by Mira Egghart, an experimenter with whom he becomes sexually involved.  Shakar succeeds in a delicate balancing act here, securing the novel simultaneously (and paradoxically) in real, virtual and supernatural worlds.”
–Kirkus Book Reviews

“There is a lot to ponder in Luminarium, and the mystery keeps the book’s momentum. Shakar is masterful at providing a good plot infused with heady topics. But the best-written passages, the ones that will evoke the most awe, are those where Fred is under Mira’s control during her experiments. . . . Shakar allows himself the entirety of his descriptive prowess in these passages. He’s not bound by real-world concerns here, and he can stop time and let readers get caught in the same unending fractals of memory as Fred.”
–The Hipster Book Club

I was electrified as I got my high-speed way through this twisting storyline.  Enlightenment was just on the next page, for me as well as Fred.  Revelations for us both were just a few words away.  In short, I could not read fast enough to match my thirst for what was coming next…not until I got to the end. After I finished, I felt like sitting and watching people elsewhere read Luminarium.  It felt like I would be just as excited to see their faces as they were feeling the same things I had experienced, waiting for them to know what I knew.  I can only think that Luminarium would hit them as strongly as it did me and I would see when it did.  After all, this book is a thing to behold, and a thing to behold being beheld.”
–The Rumpus Book Club

“Luminarium is dizzyingly smart and provocative, exploring as it does the state of the present, of technology, of what is real and what is ephemeral. But the thing that separates Luminarium from other books that discuss avatars, virtual reality and the like is that Alex Shakar is committed throughout with trying, relentlessly, to flat-out explain the meaning of life. This book is funny, and soulful, and very sad, but so intellectually invigorating that you’ll want to read it twice.”
–Dave Eggers

“This fascinating, hilarious novel, though set in the past, is the story of the future: technology has outlapped us, reality is blinking on and off like a bad wireless connection, the ones we love are nearby in one sense, but far away in another. Yet at the book’s galloping heart, it’s the story of what one man is willing to go through to find—in our crowded, second-rate space—something like faith. This novel is sharp, original, and full of energy—obviously the work of a brilliant mind.”
–Deb Olin Unferth

Illusion is the substance of Luminarium, and worlds coming apart, though quietly, like the way Fred Brounian’s comatose twin brother starts sending him email from the Hindu hell of flawed angels. For all the collapsing bardos, there is a kindness that infuses this deeply engaging book.”
–Zachary Mason