Published by Soho Press
Review by W. R. Greer
Luminarium begins with Fred Brounian in the process of losing several important parts of his life. He's split his fiancée, he's lost control of the company he founded with his twin brother George, he's broke, he's moved back in with his parents, and George lies comatose while dying from cancer. All of this occurs just before the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, which loom in the background throughout this novel. Fred is a lost soul, at times wandering around New York City looking for answers.
Answers to perplexing questions such as: Why is he getting e-mails from George?
Figuring he has nothing to lose, he volunteers for a neurological research program at NYU as he could use the $50 it pays. Also, he's attracted to the woman posting the flyers looking for volunteers and she has the same old briefcase that George had. Fortunately, the woman, Mira Egghart, is also the clinician administering the tests. These involve Fred wearing a helmet full of electrodes while Mira stimulates different parts of his brain. These stimulations cause Fred to have an out-of-body experience and a near death experience, as well as other reactions that are typically assumed to be reactions to external stimuli.
Fred's world continues to crumble around him. The three brothers—George, Fred, and Sam—had formed a company called Urth. It was a video game that George had intended as a realistic rendition of experiences on earth. The Brounians lost control of Urth to a Florida company affiliated with the military that is using it to simulate terrorist attacks and realistic war scenarios. Sam is still involved with the company, but it's been so long since Fred went to the office that he's not sure he's part of Urth anymore. He visits the office and takes part in a simulation of an attack on the Empire State Building. While his and Sam's avatars are moving around inside the building, encountering fire, damage and corpses, Fred meets George's avatar and follows him outside.
Fred doesn't know what to make of the e-mails from George and the encounter with his avatar in Urth. He's torn between believing that someone is playing a cruel hoax on him or that George has found a way to communicate from his near-death state of existence. This allows author Alex Shakar to explore the philosophies of life and afterlife. Fred's experiences in the real world continue its downward spiral. Each new attempt to improve his life ends poorly and further complicates his situation. George is stuck in a lifeless state, but perhaps he has found some sense of life from within his coma. Even though his twin brother lies comatose in the hospital, Fred can still channel his inner George, who continues to make comments about Fred's situations. The virtual reality of Urth seeks to replicate life as closely as it can, but in the end, it's still only a computer program. This engenders Fred's musings that perhaps we're all part of somebody else's virtual reality. Yet if Mira can induce those sensations that indicate a reality beyond our world, then maybe it all plays out within Fred's head anyway. Even Fred's mother and her friends channel the energies of Reiki in an attempt to heal George, then other patients in the hospital, and eventually the city itself as well.
The strength of this novel lies in its explorations of life and afterlife. It's also this novel's biggest weakness. To keep this confusion about where reality lies means leaving Fred in a continued state of confusion. He becomes too much of a sad sack at times as each new opportunity to make forward progress in understanding his life is met with another setback. These stretches of despondent Fred and repetitive philosophical musing are quickly forgotten as answers slowly appear for Fred. Each time another communication is received from George, the mystery of how this could be possible moves the novel forward.
There is nothing predictable about Luminarium, and that's always a refreshing change from formulaic plots of many genres. Its exploration of the underpinnings of life challenges the reader to think, and the mysteries of George's communications adds the suspense that keeps the pages turning. Poor Fred can be his own worst enemy at times, but sometimes you have to search harder for the answers to life. Although he becomes a little intolerable at times, Fred is fine company for most of this novel. You have to give Alex Shakar credit for writing a novel that's actually about something. Despite a few sections where the plot bogs down, it delivers a satisfying read by the time you reach the end and find the answers that Fred has sought.
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