Before Luminarium, Alex Shakar published only one other novel. It was titled The Savage Girl, and it was released a week after 9/11 and eight days after the memorial service for his younger brother who died of cancer. Last month, Shakar published an excellent essay about the experience titled "The Year of Wonders" for literary website The Millions, and much of the essay is devoted to The Savage Girl's prepublicity blitz. HarperCollins, in publicizing Shakar's novel about consumerism and advertising and irony, ironically prepped him to be the Next Hot Young Literary Thing. All the preparations for his debut, including a demeaning Details magazine shoot featuring Shakar dressed like a pop star from the 1980s, seemed ridiculous to him, even without his brother's health struggle and the awesome terror of 9/11 to put things into proper perspective.
The Savage Girl was published and immediately disappeared—remember that after 9/11, media critics were busy publishing earnest essays about how irony was dead and entertainment obsolete in the new, hyperserious world that emerged from all the ash—and Shakar basically went into hiding for a decade. Luminarium is Shakar's grand return to the stage of literary fiction, and it feels like a Big Book of Big Ideas. It's about Fred, a failed computer programmer whose twin brother, George, has been in a coma for some time. Fred and George built a virtual world named Urth together, and their younger brother is preparing to sell the program off to a military contracting firm. To make ends meet, Fred works as a lab rat receiving neurological tests to explore perceptions of reality and fantasy. He travels to the Disney-conceived town of Celebration, Florida, a crime-free, overcontrolled experiment in which wealthy people pay to live in a forcefully nostalgic idea of an America that never was.
All the while, Fred wrestles with a concept his brother George dubbed holomelancholia, "the inevitable disappointment of virtual worlds." After all, as a scientist in the research trials tells George, reality is what you decide it is:
Your brain spends all of its energy building models of the world around you. To do this, it relies in part on the data from your senses and in part on your imagination to fill in the blanks... You have more data coming in from this room than from your daydream, and so your brain decides that the room is the thing that's real at this moment.
(Naturally, as the scientist explains this idea to him, Fred experiences "one of those eerie moments of doubt, wondering if he weren't in fact dreaming all of this.")
These are all Big Ideas, and Shakar does well by them, bouncing between varying layers of simulacra and stringing the reader along through Fred's quest for something real amid all the intentional and unintentional fakery.
The problem is that these are not this year's Big Ideas. They are not even last year's Big Ideas. Hell, even though the book is set in 2006, the ideas don't feel of that time, either. Instead, Luminarium feels like the best book of 2002, yanked forward into the future and plopped down onto modern bookshelves. The questions of reality and digital fantasy feel like holdovers from that brief, confusing period when Second Life was exploding in popularity and philosophers were still employing the Matrix trilogy as an example of the way computers were changing our brains. All of it—the tech company on the verge of a big financial break; the young middle-class man who experiences a breakdown that puts his life on hold, the fact that his father is a stage magician adding another unnecessary layer to the questions of fakery and truth and wonder; the digitized rehashing of 9/11-like urban disasters, like a boy who can't stop touching his week-old scab—feels as familiar as a movie you used to watch obsessively but haven't seen in a decade or so.
Shakar is talented, but he's using that talent to invent a kind of nostalgia for the pre-9/11 literary novel. It's a questionable pursuit. With Luminarium, the author performs psychoanalysis on his protagonist/emotional stand-in. (One hundred years after Sigmund Freud's heyday, and we're still genuflecting at his primitive concepts of self in our fictions?) And at the end of this ritual journey of therapy, Shakar leaves Fred cured and blessed with a second chance.
These are the kinds of semiautobiographical fictions about the torment of creating fictions—you can't help but conflate the creator of fictionalized worlds with a hospitalized brother at the center of this book with Shakar's heavily publicized narrative—you'd expect out of a debut author (or a midcareer author who has become too heavily invested in his own hype). It investigates safe, well-trod territory, but at least Luminarium gives us a clearly defined line: It should be the last of a very 20th-century kind of novel, because it is a well-written, beautifully structured example of such. The reader closes the book hoping that Shakar's next book—hopefully produced in much less than 10 years—will be the very first of a new kind of novel. We know he has the imagination and the skill; all he needs now is the courage.