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Another fine mess

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Luminarium - Alex Shakar
Grandly ambitious, occasionally brilliant, sometimes (maybe a few too many times) bogged down by the weight of sweeping thematic concerns which put a drag on forward motion. A good novel, by a writer of great promise, and worth your time... with some caveats.

Maybe it's that the central plot devices (a woebegotten ex-boy-wonder, grieving a stricken comatose twin, spun loose from a once-promising economic venture, struggling to find meaning and purpose, and happening upon a grieving, and hot, brain researcher/love interest) license an extensive reach (Faith vs. Reason! Consciousness! The Military Entertainment Complex! 9/11! America!) but also a stumbling familiarity (a hapless protagonist, unfortunately less interesting than those he haps upon & around).

Yet Shakar is definitely worth discovering. Luminarium certainly pops as a book of and for the moment. This is a 9/11 novel, in a way, but it reworks the tropes (and sidesteps the tripe) so common in such fictions. The book strobes with witty throwaway details and descriptions, capturing with particular acuity the American narcissism about that event:

"Last year around this time," he said, "I overheard a woman in the booth behind me at a diner telling her friend that her cat chose to die the week before 9/11 'because he didn't want to be a part of all that tragedy.'" Mira stared at him for a moment. An almost noiseless laugh escaped her. "Everyone's got to spread their own miserable little layer of meaning over it," he said, feeling himself on a roll. "Like that baseball in Indiana the guy kept covering with coats of paint until it was the size of a weather balloon."

But I think he's a writer who is also laying out something richer, more long-lasting than an anniversary marker--he's positioning those events, this decade, this new millennium, in a broader sweep. Shakar's written a Big American Novel, interested in who We are, without losing sight of the particular Americans being portrayed. I think we'll return to this novel because this writer will keep demanding--and deserving--our attention.

I liked it. Yet I also dragged myself through long chunks. The ornate intellectual pyrotechnics were impressive, but I never oohed and ahhhed the way I do when Richard Powers is lighting the fuse. And elements of the central research project, on faith & brain research, reminded me of Richard Dooling's Brain Storm, which is less complex and ambitious, but more propulsive. And--completely unfairly--I am more and more often measuring big new Big New books against Jennifer Egan. . . and against that gold standard, this is a solid bronze-medal winner. A strong novel, despite my whines.