Spiritual thriller captures the intellect but delivers only a weak emotional punch
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
With its blend of technology and spirituality, Alex Shakar’s latest novel grabbed my attention early. I read as fast as I could while savoring the author’s singular metaphors and well-honed style. However, this spiritual novel’s muddled ending made me wonder if I’d wolfed it down too quickly and missed the meat of the story.
Story: 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. (From goodreads.com)
Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. I loved Shakar’s initial premise: Use cutting-edge technology to explore a blend of quantum mechanics, Buddhist and Hindu traditions, reiki, and other spiritual practices to develop spirituality based on “faith without ignorance.” To do so, a neurological research scientist stimulates specific regions of Fred’s brain to trigger spiritual experiences. Fred studies various spiritual traditions, particularly Hindu mythology, to come to terms with his experiences. Shakar examines each extraordinary event through the lens of both cutting-edge science and spirituality, creating fascinating contrasts and comparisons but rarely any contradictions. Fred eventually lands on the Zen concept of “mu,” which he interprets as doubting everything, as a path to enlightenment. He also explores samsara, the concept of existence as a divine, all-encompassing game.
My take: Luminarium makes unexpected and compelling connections between a number of fascinating themes – spirituality, computer gaming, quantum theory, Hindu and Buddhist practices, twin experiences, even 9/11 and magic shows. I wanted to love this spiritual novel, and mostly I did. Shakar’s prose is sleek and polished, studded with arresting metaphors and juxtapositions. The idea that these seemingly unrelated storylines could be woven together into a brilliant tapestry of meaning kept me reading, even when the story began to bog down in Hindu mythology and 9/11 reminiscences.
In the end, however, a clear picture never emerged; the various story threads knotted into a confused snarl of insights that lacked enough context to illuminate me, so to speak. From my limited knowledge of Buddhist practice, I suspect that when Fred retreats into mu meditation he progresses through the traditional stages of Zen enlightenment. Shakar also takes the idea of samsara literally, placing Fred and his twin in a virtual reality game to play out their karmic issues. Perhaps someone with more dharma knowledge could follow all the threads and discover the hidden truths. For me, however, the novel posed too many questions and resolved too few. This spiritual thriller engaged my intellect, but the ending left an emotional void.
Details: Luminarium, by Alex Shakar
Soho Press, 2011
Kindle, approx. 400 pages
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