It is a quintessential existential appraisal of life in the jet stream; a marvelous re-examining of all that Americans hold dear in our fast-paced, ambitious, over-eager, petty little lives.
“Luminarium” follows the life of Fred Brounian – whose identical twin brother has fallen into a coma after struggling with cancer for years, who has lost the company that he and his brother built together, whose fiance has recently left him, who is completely broke and now living with his parents – as he begins what might be called a quest for enlightenment. On a whim, he signs up for an experimental study, wherein he is subjected to a neurologically-stimulating program that gives him what might be called a spiritual, out-of-body experience.
This, in combination with a strange and untimely email from his comatose brother (for over six months), which references the term “avatara” from Hindu mythology, leads Fred Brounian down into the rabbit hole of his own despair. Several more of these neurological sessions follow, each one more extreme than the last. Fred receives more emails from his twin, text messages from numbers that don’t exist saying “CALL GEORGE”, and finds his brother’s own demented appearance in their company’s computer simulations. These increasingly bizarre messages and out-of-body experiences, combined with the de-evolution of his own personal and professional life, lead Fred into a kind of grand life-state regression. At the end of the book, Fred can be found meditating for days on end, living in the boiler room in the basement of his old office, no cell phone, the police on his tail and a warrant for his arrest, and a sleeping bag and a giant old mainframe computer his only companions. He has nothing left to lose.
Tyler Durden says in “Fight Club” (by Chuck Palahniuck, though I assume everyone in the English-speaking world knows “Fight Club” by now) that “it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything”. (I don’t have the book on hand or I’d page-cite it. Forgive me, publishing world. That also goes for all following “Luminarium” quotes, for which I only have the Kindle version, and have no page citations.)
It is at this point, when all of the things that might be considered valuable in his own life are already gone, that Fred is free to explore the most fundamentally crucial aspect of life – his own existence. When it is only the “I”, the “Me”, the “Fred Brounian” that remains in his life, Fred seeks to exterminate even that. Over the course of several days in the boiler room, Fred manages to completely obliterate his own sense of identity, and comes to think of himself as non-existent, person-less, a physical body without anything inside. “Where am I? But the I, the am, these words had no meaning […] These thinkerless thoughts remained, bits of exploded brain pulp, twinkling in the miasma.” This metaphysical triumph is a marvel to behold in literary form, to watch as Shakar deftly destroys Fred’s pronouns, his thoughts, his self-descriptions and identifiers, and yet still compellingly illustrates the world in motion around him. ” Fred’s spiritual death reveals the true power of non-entity, of complete selflessness, that ultimate liberation that allows him to view and to merge with the universe in a way that most mortals have never and will never.
Though the obliteration of self might be the climax of the book both in the religious and the literary sense, it is the journey to that triumph that is the most valuable to the reader. We follow Fred on his journey inside himself as his world continues to fall apart, sometimes slowly, in bits and pieces, and sometimes in grand, aching swaths of destruction. Shakar’s description along the way of the modern world, with all its technology and ambition, its life-saving cures and its deadly poisons, its alluringly beautiful and deceptively false promises of life, liberty, and happiness, all fall into lock-step with Fred’s slow descent into what appears to be insanity. But his insanity makes sense. At times during the book, it is difficult to see why everyone in modern America does not follow Fred’s path, descending down into our own rage and helplessness, our own sense that our dreams are at once unattainable and necessary, absolutely required and absolutely futile.
The magic of the book (and the reason why everyone must read it) is that it speaks so perfectly to our time. In a post-9/11 world (which factors heavily into the book), where we live on our cell phones, fly halfway around the world in a half-day, and Tweet and Facebook about everything that might possibly be considered of interest to others, we are both far more connected and far more alone than we ever have been before. Fred’s increasing despair and the loss of everything he holds dear helps to remind him that these things are no more existentially relevant than the water we drink or the food we eat. In a post-religious world (at least for the majority of my friends), we struggle to define ourselves as we come into society, to connect ourselves to the universe and our fellow humans at large, to identify a belief in any structural “deity”, and to find any real source of meaning in our lives outside of the ant farm slave labor we endure in the ongoing rat race for “success”, “family”, “house”, “job”, “money”, “happiness”, or any other words we associate with the deepest desires of our hearts.
“Luminarium”, I believe, offers an out. I’m not going to tell you why or what the “out” is (because in fact it will probably be different for you, or maybe you won’t agree with me, or whatever). You have to read the book to find out. But I’ll give you a hint:
Close to the end of his meditation, Fred comes to one final hurdle to conquer in his utter destruction of self: “And there it was–spotted at last. The final head [of the Hydra], peeping up from the dark: meaning. The desire for that. […] This life should mean something. All life should mean something. George’s life should have meant something. Everything should mean. Every last thing. […] He wanted meaning. He didn’t want not to want it.”
But that’s all you get. Now, go read the book, America.