When I read the inside cover, I did not think I was really going to enjoy reading Luminarium. The summary made the book sound like something Robert Lundlum would write after he’d downed a few mescaline caps, despite what was actually promised. Granted, there is nothing wrong with Lundlum’s type of book, but action-thriller novels just aren’t what I really get into. However, the blurbs on the back included Dave Eggers, Deb Olin Unferth, and Jonathan Franzen, among others. Were they into Lundlum-type books? I did not imagine that they were. Of course, I read Luminarium, but despite the notables present in the blurb section, I wasn’t very excited when I first got started.
However, that changed from the first couple of sentences:
Picture yourself stepping into a small, cuboid room. In the center squats an old recliner, upholstered in black vinyl. To the chair’s back is affixed a jointed metal arm, possibly on loan from a desk lamp. At the end of the arm, where the bulb and shade would have gone, hangs instead a sparkly gold motorcycle helmet, a vintage, visorless number with a chin strap.
“It’s safer than it looks,” the woman standing beside you says, with an edge of humor.
I have rarely been more mistaken in my ‘dust jacket’ impressions. Luminarium is an incredibly layered book, though the term ‘layers’ is probably not apt because the ‘layers’ aren’t really separable. Luminarium is a novel about coming to terms with loss. No, it’s an enlightenment quest. Whoops, wrong again. It’s a romantic techno-mystery. Wait…aww, screw it. I give up. Luminarium defies this kind of classification.
So, what do we have? We have Fred, whose life is quickly sliding into the crapper. At one point he was a co-CEO of a video game company along with his twin brother George. Now his brother is dying, long trapped in a coma, and his company has been snatched away by a military contractor ‘partner.’
The terms of the sale of the company to Armation had guaranteed him a salary as an independent contractor for six months. These six months were almost up, and as he hadn’t been occupying his seat there much during this period (or for the six months preceding), he wasn’t as certain that his contract would be extended as he would have liked. If the axe did fall, George’s skinflint health plan having been drained and abandoned long ago, Fred might have nothing to pay the next hospital bill[.]
Adrift and lacking anything constructive to do as he watches the company and his brother slide away from him, he participates in a study that stimulates brain areas in order to simulate mystic experiences. Only, is it simulated? Oh yeah, also his brother may be sending text messages and emails to him from some weird possibly Hindu afterlife called “Pretaloka, a limbo…for angels who don’t believe in angels, angels who…don’t believe in themselves,” and otherwise setting various unknown plans and events into motion.
Of course, Shakar does not just present these elements as woven together in an alternating pattern. It just is not that simple. In truth, these things are not separate elements at all. It is all the same wild narrative thread, pulling strangely in multiple directions at the same time.
Most impressive for me, though, is the degree to which I get into the main character. It feels almost like Fred is the avatar that I am using to project into and navigate Shakar’s world, that I’m experiencing through Fred instead of being told about his experiences.
Perhaps some of this comes from the unusual first chapter. Presented in an odd laid-back second person form, Fred’s situation is quickly painted as a hypothetical situation happening to the reader.
Maybe you’re thinking better of it. This could be your last opportunity to blurt apologies and flee. But just suppose that things haven’t been going well for you lately. Assume, for the sake of argument, that in fact things have been going very, very badly. I hesitate to say how badly. Let’s say you founded a company that has more or less been stolen from you, and now you’re just about broke. Broke and alone. Having split with your fiancé months before. And that these circumstances barely even register because someone very close to you has been losing a battle with cancer. Or has slipped into a coma. Perhaps this person is your business partner. Your best friend. Your brother. Your identical twin. Let’s go for broke and say all of it, all the above, and that the thought of being back out on the busy midday sidewalk – among all those people with places to go and lives to lead – is enough to make you want to sit for a spell.
Then, in the blink of an eye, it is over, switching to third person and mainlining the reader into the third person narrative of the rest of the book.
However, regardless how Shakar accomplishes this intense connection to his protagonist, I was electrified as I got my high-speed way through this twisting storyline. Enlightenment was just on the next page, for me as well as Fred. Revelations for us both were just a few words away. In short, I could not read fast enough to match my thirst for what was coming next…not until I got to the end.
After I finished, I felt like sitting and watching people else read Luminarium. It felt like I would be just as excited to see their faces as they were feeling the same things I had experienced, waiting for them to know what I knew. I can only think that Luminarium would hit them as strongly as it did me and I would see when it did. After all, this book is a thing to behold, and a thing to behold being beheld.