Alex Shakar is the author of City in Love -- a short-story collection published in 1996 that re-engineered the transformation myths of Ovid's Metamorphoses -- and of The Savage Girl, a novel that portrayed marketing trend-spotting as a form of transcendental quest. The Savage Girl was released in 2001, just after 9/11.
Ten years on, in 2011, Alex's novel Luminarium was released to wide acclaim. The hero is Fred Brounian, co-founder with his twin brother, George, of a software company devoted to creating utopian virtual worlds. As the story begins, George is in a coma, and the company the twins co-founded has been been taken over by a military contracting conglomerate, Armation. The novel starts with Fred participating in a neurological study: the crushworthy Mira Egghart fits Fred with a “God helmet,” an apparatus reportedly capable of inducing altered state or spiritual “peak” experiences through weak fluctuating magnetic fields. This apparatus will enable Fred to have out-of-body experiences that transform his understanding of his place in the world.
Luminarium is a book brimming with ideas, that strives to find sense in the human condition. To get Alex talking about it, I tried using an unorthodox interview structure:
Imagine you are immersed in a virtual reality simulation -- the same product owned by the corporation Armation in Luminarium -- and your avatar has to pass through what you describe in that book as a "virtual Iraqi checkpoint." The checkpoint guard resembles Mira Egghart and to get past her, you have to answer the following questions: due to a glitch in the software, each question is mostly incomprehensible to you, but you sense the only way forward is to answer the question anyway. You know Mira knows you know what she's really asking...!
Q: " ... God helmet... ?"
What made the helmet fun to write about was that narratively in Fred’s life, it’s an engine of both doubt and faith at once.
He knows each session is a trick. He thinks he does. The tricks seem to lead him only into chaos. And yet, they also point toward possibilities more compelling and meaningful than the life experiences he’s previously known.
So we get to watch the faith and doubt grow in him side by side as his life keeps getting more agonizing on the one hand, more wondrous on the other.
And when he starts finding out what the helmet means to Mira, it draws them closer. And in various ways, directly or indirectly, the helmet draws Fred closer to the others around him too — to his parents, Holly and Vartan, to his brother, Sam, and as well assorted birthday girls and pin-curled old ladies.
Q: "... twins... ?"
A twin is the closest thing to a second self in the world. It’s maybe that rare phenomenon smack in between self and other. I was interested in looking at self and other. I was interested, in a literary sort of way, in smashing the divide.
One thing I discovered as I wrote was that Fred and George are far from the story’s only twins. So many of the characters have metaphorical twins from various angles. For me, Fred and Mira may be the deepest twins of all.
Q: “... survivor guilt... ?”
Yes, guilt. Also anger, helpless rage. And playing (and being) the fool. The guilt isn’t only Fred’s. The whole family constellation is wrapped up in it, in one way or another. Guilt, sorrow, inability to accept, crazy hope. It all goes into the karma grinder and what comes out are magic shows, Reiki healings, workaholism and Christian dating.
We’re in this world until we’re not. We get abandoned by each other one by one. The gaps keep opening. We try to close around them. But in those gaps lie possibilities for creation, too.
Q: “... the anthropic argument... ?”
Many variants of this, but basically, it’s a scientific argument that the universe is fine-tuned for life and consciousness.
Fred is hoping to find a bridge between science and faith. It’s tied up in how he’s looking for a way to believe that his brother isn’t gone, and that he himself has a future, that good things might still be possible in his life.
To George, what seemed strange, even galling, after the cancer struck and their company was eaten, was that the world, after all, didn’t seem made for him and Fred, which it had so much seemed to be in the '90s when so much success was theirs. Fred shares this disillusionment. In a way, the weight of George’s disillusionment is even harder for Fred to bear than his own.
I think faith is about the sense — the need and possibly the necessity for the sense — that the world is made for us, if only just a little, and that our little doings here are not only not unimportant, but are in some hidden way crucial.
Q: “... birthday party magician... ?
Fun, sadness, discoveries light and dark. George gets this idea for the shows as a kid. It’s about magic and engagement and escape but also about something pressing and real — the family’s dire financial straits and their dad’s unemployment and depression.
There’s a way in which George’s unresolved dreams from the shows blossom into his later visions for his virtual world. And a way in which Fred’s unease as a kid about what he perceives as the underlying lie of the shows — the unhappiness of his family, their inability to create much in the way of magic for themselves — develops into what has to get resolved for him as an adult: his ambivalence about reality and fantasy alike, his search for how to live with any effectiveness in this world.
Vartan, as a young father, reviles the shows; they’re a mark of failure, of the stagnation of his acting ambitions. But twenty years later — his career long established, his adult son dying and all but gone — he’s lost all interest in acting. All he wants to do is birthday party magic.
Q: “... military-entertainment complex...?”
It’s one of those absurd phrases that start to eat at you more and more as you sit with it.
Fred and George first encounter the MEC when they go down to Orlando to partner up with Armation. But that’s only the beginning. George first, and Fred later on, start to see military entertainment everywhere. Fred sees it in his fiancé’s cable news job. He sees it in the mysterious messages he starts getting, in the Hindu myths on which they’re based. He sees it in Lord of the Rings. He sees it in theme parks and virtual skyscrapers. More chillingly, he starts to see it inside people. He sees it in himself.
He starts to wonder — as did I as the story unfolded: To what extent are each of us military-entertainment complexes in miniature? Little virtual realities made of ideologies, opinionations, defensive perimeters, pre-emptive strikes?
If we want to upgrade the cultural operating system, we’d better look, too, at what’s running in our heads.
Q: “... out of body experience... ?”
What a thing to experience. And so many people have, more than you’d think. For Fred, there’s so much longing in those brief jaunts out of his body — for freedom, for transcendence, for perspective, for his little life itself, seen from that new angle.
If only we could all escape and see it from on high, even just for a minute. Maybe we all will, by the end. Maybe only then will we realize that the whole in-body experience was a miracle too.
Q: “... 9/11... ?"
Yes. It seems to float around the edges of the story. And maybe for a spell you wonder why.
Maybe, as well, you wonder why Fred hates it. 9/11 talk, 9/11 commemorations, 9/11 novels. His loathing of it leads him to commit a quasi-insane and regrettable act or two.
Certain things happen in this world that have so many indirect effects, they can’t help but knock the course of our lives around — even those of us not directly in the initial path — in more ways than we can track.
Sometimes we look back at those events and the twists and detours they put us through, and we start to ask questions about randomness and fate and what the whole story means. We want the world to mean. We want to mean something to it. We orbit the hole where meaning should be, looking for meaning in all the wrong places and ways.
Until maybe if we’re lucky there’s a moment where something shifts. And everything’s glimpsed in a strange new light. And the stories aren’t separate. And the stories are meaning enough.
Q: “Mira seems to approve of your answers. She says something about virtual reality, the out-of-body experience, the God helmet, and the conjuring trick all potentially being analogs of the creative process/ reading experience, and waves you through the checkpoint. Now you're past her defensive perimeter, what do you glimpse?"
Ha. I’ll take this to mean, “what’s next?”
Picture shadowy human forms, objects, settings, bullet-pointed ideas, odd and enticing words, all lighting up and going dark, whirling together, apart, together anew, all in flux.
Picture the flux. That’s me.