Bookmarks Issue: 
Alex Shakar

A-LuminariumUniversity of Illinois Associate Professor Alex Shakar's critically acclaimed debut novel, The Savage Girl (2001), was named a New York Times Notable Book. He has also published a collection of short stories, City in Love (1996).

The Story: In August 2001, New York City software developer Fred Brounian and his brothers were poised to launch a new kind of game--"a game of spiritual evolution" designed to improve players' minds. After 9/11, however, their funding falls through, and a military contractor hijacks the game for disaster simulations. Five years later, Fred, desperate for money, signs up for a neurological experiment devised to discover a biological basis for spirituality. Fred is suddenly confounded by a "glimpse of a perspective outside the smallness of his own mind." But are these new feelings and insights the result of true mystical experiences or just neural anomalies caused by electric shocks?
Soho Press. 432 pages. $25.00. ISBN: 9781569479759

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"I can't claim to have understood all of it, but I did find it completely absorbing, and anyone hungry for a deeply philosophical novel that, nonetheless, maintains its humility will find here a story worth wrestling with. ... Luminarium is as much a psychological thriller as a meditation on Eastern mythology, as much a satire of the war on terror as a lament for lost loved ones." Ron Charles

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"An intricately structured, imaginative, epistemological, and wildly eventful tale of illusion and longing, Luminarium fizzes with ideas, social concerns and metaphoric splendor in its exploration of doubling--in the twin towers, the two halves of the brain, mind and body, fact and belief, good and evil, life and death, aloneness and communion. Shakar's novel astutely dramatizes moral and spiritual dilemmas catalyzed by the frenetic post-9/11 cyber age, while love, as it always has, blossoms among the ruins." Donna Seaman

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Insisting its readers work, it occasionally left this one exhausted as well as lost; to steal one of Shakar's hundreds of Pynchonesque similes, there were times I felt like I was ‘flicking a Zippo inside the sun.' But Luminarium is also one of the most exciting and bracing books I've read this year, because it has the guts to ask questions--and even venture some answers--regarding issues most contemporary American fiction won't touch." Mike Fischer

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"There are too many subplots shooting off in too many directions for the satisfactions of a neat resolution to be possible. At the same time, it's tough to point to any one of these strands and wish it were gone. Faced with the choice between making his story compelling and making it coherent, Shakar chooses compelling every time." Christopher R. Beha

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"With big philosophical issues about the nature of existence, a meditation on post-9/11 America, questions about technology, faith and mysticism, corporate intrigue involving the takeover of the Brounians' company, mysterious text messages and the ups and downs (mostly downs) of Fred's peculiar life, there's a lot going on in Luminarium, almost too much. As Shakar suggests in the book, maybe the whole universe is one big computer game and we are all bit players plotting a course through the multiple parallel realities this adventure-seeking void generates. It's a fascinating idea on which to hinge this worthy novel." Tyrone Beason

Critical Summary

At a time when writers, readers, and publishers are increasingly reluctant to take chances, notes the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Shakar has penned a deeply philosophical novel that confronts the nature of reality, the meaning of faith, and the relationships among technology, consumerism, and perception. The critics were floored. "Days after finishing [Luminarium]," observed Ron Charles of the Washington Post, "I'm still stumbling around the house in a mixture of wonder and awe." A few complaints surfaced: Shakar truly makes readers work for the insights he has to offer, and the byzantine subplots don't all add up. Despite a few hiccups, however, Shakar's luminous and thought-provoking novel will captivate readers as it leads them into territory too often uncharted by contemporary literature.