Sept/Oct/Nov 2011

Negative Capability

Alex Shakar's Luminarium grapples with neuroscience, Hindu mythology, and a city beset by tragedy

Justin Taylor


Alex Shakar’s first novel, The Savage Girl, is a biting satire of ’90s culture set in an alternate-universe Manhattan (“Middle City”) built on the side of a volcano. At a beverage mogul’s house party, professional “trendspotters” Ursula Van Urden and Javier Delreal notice a screen saver that animates apocalypse scenarios: Middle City leveled by natural disasters, pummeled by a Godzilla/King Kong tag team, vaporized by an atom bomb, floating away when gravity fails, crushed by “the sandaled foot of God.” The city is endlessly obliterated, restored, destroyed anew. The Savage Girl had the singular misfortune of being published on September 18, 2001—one week after part of New York itself was obliterated. When Janet Maslin reviewed the novel in her New York Times column on September 20, she declared that “last week’s calamity has ensured instant obsolescence for certain kinds of artistic enterprise” before gamely making the case that Shakar’s novel still had a claim to entertainment value and cultural relevance in (Maslin’s words again) “these drastically changing times.”

Rightly or wrongly, The Savage Girl was a casualty of the Death of Irony, a fact that is itself ironic given that the book was, in Kurt Andersen’s words, an “analysis (and embodiment) of post-ironic yearning.” Shakar is a Brooklyn native, and each of his books is, in its way, a love letter to New York. After ten years of silence, he has written another.

In Luminarium, Shakar’s second novel and his third book, Manhattan goes by its own name, as it did in his 1996 collection, City in Love. Though the latter was a fabulist retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in the new book verisimilitude—if not precisely realism—is the order of the day. Luminarium is the story of Fred and George Brounian, identical-twin Brooklynites born the year that the Twin Towers opened (1973). Fred, George, and their younger brother Sam found a software company during the dot-com boom to develop a “utopian virtual world” called Urth. After 9/11—and the dot-com collapse—their company loses its financial backing, and the Brounians compromise their original vision to do contract work for the “Military Entertainment Complex.” Instead of drawing users “up the pyramid steps of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs . . . to beauty, truth, self-actualization,” Urth is revamped to simulate war zones and urban disasters. That’s all backstory. At the novel’s opening in mid-August ’06 (that is, the weeks approaching the fifth anniversary of 9/11), the Brounians have lost their company to a conglomerate called Armation. Sam is an eager running dog of the new corporate overlords, George is in a coma from which he may never emerge, and Fred—well, Fred’s pretty much fucked. His fiancée has left him, Armation wants to fire him, he’s broke from paying George’s “out of network” medical bills, and he’s back living with his parents in the apartment where he grew up. For extra cash he helps his father, a failed actor, do a magic act at kids’ parties and old folks’ homes.

Click to enlarge

Doug Aitken, Heightened, 2006, C-print mounted on aluminum.

As if that weren’t enough to keep track of (and believe me, I’ve left a lot out), Fred decides to sign up for a paid neurological study that uses high-tech gadgets to induce spiritual experiences in its test subjects. The study—run by a foxy scientist named Mira Egghart—wants to help its subjects find “a foothold of reason in that sheer cliff of spirit” in order to facilitate “faith without ignorance.” Did I mention that Fred sometimes receives ominous e-mail messages that seem to be, however impossibly, from comatose George?

Luminarium is one of those books that is not shy about being about what it’s about, and it’s about plenty: technology, faith, families, war, media, illness, New York, second chances, the aftermath of tragedy, and how grief shapes or even becomes the survivor’s life. (Every Brounian except for Fred has written George off and mourned for him; Fred spends every free minute at the hospital in case George should happen to stir.) Luminarium is also a book about money, and how extraordinarily cruel the city has become to people who do not have any. Fred signs up for Mira’s study—Mira herself is a kind of latter-day William James–ian with a personal connection to the events of 9/11—in part because it makes him feel closer to George, who always maintained a generous interest in things ineffable, but also because he desperately needs the fifty bucks a session. Watching Fred try to make his money last from one week to the next turns your stomach and sets your teeth on edge.

Luminarium draws heavily on outside texts—Hindu mythology and the Lord of the Rings films provide so much narrative scaffolding that they become characters themselves. The story of the twin sages Nara and Narayana, who together form the fifth avatar of Vishnu, is deployed to great effect, besides which it is fascinating in its own right. Other major works and systems referenced (to varying effect) include The Tempest, the mystical writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Reiki healing, and the lexicons of self-help and neuroscience. And yet one comes to feel that the only book Fred really needs a copy of is by Marx and Engels. Money—not Lord Vishnu or Gandalf the Grey—is the one true God of Luminarium, and He is all too real. When George first proposes the Urth concept to Fred, he thinks of the venture as a “rescue from their stalled little lives.” Later on, his life not so much stalled as totaled, Fred

preferred dwelling on signs of the city’s rot and crumbling infrastructure to acknowledging its renewal, all the ways in which it was actually succeeding in getting younger and hipper and richer right in step with its residents. This latter phenomenon could make him feel doubly cheated out of his former life, make him feel like the attack had been merely a ruse, a mock fainting spell, to win the city sympathy and an allure of vulnerability, to make living here seem not just a luxury but an act of heroism, too, so that all those newly heroical investment bankers and hedge fund managers and trustafarians, and anyone else who had it all could now really have it all—the doormen and wraparound terraces and gourmet delis and the moral superiority.

While Fred’s class jealousy undercuts the moral authority of his class rage, it is authentic and enlivening. Moreover, Fred’s anger is clarifying—it keeps him from (a) bemoaning his miserable existence, or (b) poring over the above-cited esoterica in search of clues about the book’s central mystery: Is it possible that George—suspended by his coma between life and death—is really trapped in the depths of the Pretaloka (a kind of Hindu limbo) and sending Fred messages from there? Was that really George (in the digital avatar of an avenging angel, no less) who wrecked Sam’s in-Urth demo of an attack on the Empire State Building? If it’s not, then who (or what) is behind the communiques and incidents, and what do they want from Fred? And if it is, well—then what?

Stories like The Lord of the Rings (to say nothing of the Hindu myths or The Tempest) generate and sustain narrative energy in large part by knowing when to crosscut between multiple plot threads, but Luminarium is all “Freddo,” all the time. This deeply empathetic but utterly hapless man sets not just the book’s tone but its pace, and some of Luminarium’s revelations will become self-evident well before Fred himself puzzles them out. The novel is a heartfelt and frequently ingenious work of beauty and sophistication, but it would be even better (and a hundred pages shorter) if it placed more trust in its readers and didn’t bludgeon its thematic nails quite so squarely on their poor worn heads.

It doesn’t help, pace-wise, that Shakar has a habit of starting chapters after their main action has transpired, then relating that action to us through Fred’s recollection of it rather than in real narrative time. After a long day of humiliation by the corporate goons who have robbed him of his intellectual property and his self-respect, Fred goes on a well-earned bender and winds up demolishing a plaster replica of the Twin Towers on a miniature golf course. This scene—perfect in its extravagant perversion—could be the novel’s emotional and symbolic ne plus ultra but for the fact that it’s meted out piecemeal across two chapters, the pathos left to wither.

Contrast that slow-dole approach to Fred’s sessions with Mira during the neuro-study and his mental exercises at home with CDs she gives him. These several episodes of induced out-of-body experience and semi-lucid dreaming are rendered in real time—and in the present tense, as though phenomenologically ongoing—with a clarity and grace that makes for some of the strongest prose in the book. A recurring image of “the unmoored city tumbling gently up” transfigures the hip cynicism of The Savage Girl’s apocalypse screen saver into a redeeming vision of nonattachment and reconciliation with the fact of death, which is of course to say the fact of life:

And maybe you’re wondering where it’s all going, and where you’re going, and maybe some things aren’t clear to you, but one thing can be clear, one thing you can know is true: that no harm can come to any of it, not to the city and not to you. Everything up here, going somewhere good. Everything up here, heading only where it should.

In his Hymn of the Universe, Teilhard de Chardin wrote that “the multiplicity of evolutions into which the world process seems to us to be split up is in fact fundamentally the working out of one single great mystery.” This is a fair summary of what it will eventually turn out that someone (or something) was trying to teach Fred all along. It’s not a new lesson, but it’s one worth learning. Inasmuch as we haven’t, it’s hard to fault Shakar for offering this refresher course.

Justin Taylor is the author, most recently, of the 2011 novel The Gospel of Anarchy (Harper Perennial).

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