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Faith Without Ignorance

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Luminarium by Alex Shakar

As Alex Shakar deadpans early in his new novel Luminarium, “Things have been going very, very badly” for Fred Brounian. Having split with both his fiancée and the company he co-founded, Fred is now broke, living with his parents, and so desperate for cash that he signs up for one of those “scientific studies” you’ll find advertised in the back pages of the local alt-weekly. In other words, Fred is similar to a character straight out of the movie Slacker. Fitting, then, that in a small way Fred and Luminarium can trace their roots back to that iconic Austin film.

At the dawn of the 1990s, Shakar quit his job at a Manhattan publishing house and hit the road. “A friend and I drove around the country for a couple of months in his aunt’s ’78 Oldsmobile,” he tells me over ice waters at an Austin diner. Shakar is in town to give a reading at a bookstore, but he’s so soft-spoken that he wonders whether my tape recorder will pick up his voice, though we’re at a table about the size of a school desk. “We got to Austin, Texas,” he continues, “and this movie Slacker had just come out. We saw it at the Dobie Theatre [where the film was originally screened]. So from the very first Austin felt to me like a place of artistic freedom and exploration.”

After returning to New York, Shakar applied for and got a spot at the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, where he spent three years studying the craft of fiction writing. His story collection, City in Love, is a direct result of his time in Austin, and in 1996 the book won the FC2 Innovative Fiction Competition. “Austin for me was a time to explore and experiment with my work,” Shakar says. “I learned so much here. It was formative in a lot of ways.”

So formative that though he left after graduation, Shakar’s debut novel, The Savage Girl, was originally set in Austin. Eventually Austin morphed into the fictional Middle City, an overly hip metropolis perched on the edge of a volcano. The book features a set of supercool “trendspotters,” and amounts to a denunciation of rampant consumerism that predicts a coming age of “Postirony,” but the timing of its release—September 18, 2001—meant, in the words of one reviewer, “instant obsolescence.” Shakar was dropped by his publisher.

Ten years later comes the release of his third book, Luminarium. When I ask Shakar what it feels like to finish the decade-long project, he laughs, sighs, then echoes his description of his time in Texas. “Three words or less?” he says. “Good and freeing.”

Luminarium is a complex novel set in the weeks leading up to the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Along with his financial troubles, Fred Brounian also watches his touchstone, twin brother George, lapse into a cancer-induced coma. On a search for meaning (and money), Fred enlists in an NYU-sponsored study that promises test subjects “a spiritual awakening” through the weekly use of a helmet that delivers electromagnetic pulses to the brain. The study’s facilitator, the fetching Mira Egghart, tells Fred that the goal is to evoke spirituality through stimulation of the brain rather than the emotions. “A faith without ignorance,” she calls it.

Meanwhile, Fred’s other brother Sam continues work on “Urth,” a Second Life-like virtual reality the Brounian brothers created. George’s vision of Urth had been of “a game of spiritual evolution” where “rather than amassing and plundering and hoarding their resources, players could be rewarded […] with gradually increasing powers of perception.” Regardless, Urth, Inc.’s backers pull funding after 9/11 and the company is taken over by Armation, a corporate member of the “Military-Entertainment Complex.” Urth is now being used for war and disaster training, Armation sees Fred as a cipher, and George, in unconscious limbo, is unable to help.

Or is he? Someone is sabotaging Armation’s virtual world, and Fred suspects his comatose twin brother. During a particularly eerie test simulating a terrorist attack on the Empire State Building, Fred follows a destructive avatar—a “chemotherapy angel” who looks an awful lot like George with wings, an oxygen tank, and a hammer. Fred has also been receiving text messages and emails from someone purporting to be George. Could George be trapped inside his own virtual reality? Or is it Fred whose reality isn’t quite as real as it seems?

It’s heavy stuff, all this talk of spiritual awakenings and real versus virtual, but Shakar sprinkles in plenty of levity. While lunching with his godfather Manfred at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fred ponders how such a “crass, shimmering place” could even be real. “It’s not not real,” Manfred says. “It’s not both not real and not not real. [...] It’s not neither not real nor not not real.” Fred’s response? “Just … tell me why life sucks so much.”

In the end, Fred won’t find the answers to all of his questions, but what he does discover proves just as enlightening.

Luminarium is a profound, demanding, and very funny book from a writer unafraid to take chances. The novel has received glowing reviews from several major newspapers and was chosen as August’s Book Club Selection by the popular culture blog The Rumpus.

Just like Fred Brounian, Shakar seems to wonder how all this can be real. After the Austin reading, he asks the crowd to stay in their seats and pose for a picture. Outside, as darkness sets over the city, he and I get into a discussion about blogging. “I don’t think anyone even knows my blog exists,” he says. Then he pulls out his phone again and snaps a photo of his name lit up on the marquee. “For the blog,” he says with a shy smile.

David Duhr is fiction editor at The Texas Observer and Fringe magazine, and co-founder of Austin-based writing center WriteByNight.

Texas Observer books and fiction editor David Duhr runs WriteByNight, a writing center and writers’ ser- vice in Austin.