Alex Shakar's August 2011 release, Luminarium, is a wildly cerebral novel about two twins: George, in a coma, and Fred, in a mad quest to awaken his twin. The quest takes him to eastern religion, virtual worlds, Manhattan and Disney World, and through a series of encounters with a god helmet. Apart from being an interesting, engaging, and original book, Luminarium presents some good lessons in craft for writers.
Lesson #1: Where to Begin and Where to End
Every character's real story begins with his birth and ends with his death. Lots of stuff happens in between in this life -- ups and downs, conflicts, and tragedies -- all potential centerpieces for the plot of a novel about this character. The job of the writer is to determine where exactly to begin, and where to end. This is a huge, tricky, and monumentally important question, and Shakar navigates it perfectly in this book. Fred Brounian, the main character, is a man whose situation is already bad at the beginning of the book, and gets rapidly worse as the book progresses. But there were plenty of conflict-ridden, interesting, plot-filled bits that Shakar could have included, instead of starting it where he did. He could have started when Fred's twin got his cancer diagnosis, or when their virtual reality company was taken over by a military software company. He could have started when Fred's marriage went down the toilet, or he could have started before any of that happened, when life was good and Fred and George were on top of the world.
By choosing to frame the story with Fred's first experience in the clinical trial of a god helmet, and ending -- well, I won't tell you, but it'll make sense when you get there, Shakar puts a very logical box around a set of material that is basically an giant octopus on crack, in terms of scope and manageability. With material this weird and chaotic, there's no need to make the timeline strange. So by starting with session one, and using the recurring test sessions as a scaffolding, he's helping himself and the reader get a handle on it. Not only is this decision structurally sound, but it's thematically perfect, because the real nadir of Fred's experience is there, in the sessions, and what subsequently happens to his brain.
Lesson #2: It's Got To Bleed
Dear Male Writers of the World,
If you want me to love a book, you have to make me love a character. I think it's awesome that you have ideas and stuff, and that you are willing to put your characters through hell, but here's a clue: I don't care what you put your characters through if they're little machines created to illustrate your idea, and nothing more.
Luminarium is a complex, cerebral book that takes on eastern mysticism, neuropsychology, the ethos of virtual worlds, and the nature of the human self. However, true to form, in writing this brainy book of ideas, Alex Shakar has also managed to hit that most elusive target of all: a fresh and believable depiction of true love that is neither romantic or ironic. It's heartbreaking -- viscerally, not just conceptually. And it's palpable, the love that Fred has for George, the connection between them, the frustrations between them, and by extension the love/connection/frustration that Fred has with himself, with the city of New York.
This is what a reader wants: real beauty. Real horror. Real loss and real elation. Detachment and intellectual games are ultimately forgettable. Love is not.
Writing this way is risky for an author, but Shakar wins the gamble.
Maybe the secret to his compelling originality is that the love story is not between a boyfriend and girlfriend, or husband and wife, but between a man and his twin, therefore between a man and himself. The plot arc that begins with abject self-loathing ends in a place so simultaneously inevitable and also satisfyingly unpredictable, you have to read it (to the end) to understand. There are so many layers to this love story -- the love of an author for a wounded city, the love of a man for his brother, for a woman...
This book hits a lot of my buttons -- machine sentience, god in the grid, the split self, etc. So I was kind of wired, if you will, to enjoy it. However, I respect Shakar independently of his willingness to write books I want to read. He is not one of these male writers who thinks of an idea and then makes characters like paper dolls to march around illustrating it, so that at the end you've got the idea and maybe some truth, but no sense of real pain, or loss, or beauty. These books think, but they don't bleed. Ironically, Shakar's book about avatars and virtual worlds, imagined gods and projected love, is ultimately entirely human. It laughs, it bleeds, it delivers: emotion without sentimentality, ideas without dogma, tangible love.