It took Alex Shakar 10 years to complete his second novel, Luminarium (Soho Press, 448 pages, $25.00), and he had to take up Zen meditation to do it. “I knew I wanted to write about spirituality,” Mr. Shakar said during a recent phone interview. “But it took me a while to figure out that I really didn’t understand it.”
His spiritual exploration began, unwittingly, on the evening of Sept. 10, 2001, when he was moved to offer a prayer before going to sleep in his parents’ Brooklyn home. Mr. Shakar wasn’t religious, but he had just returned from a memorial service for his editor, Robert Jones, whose death from cancer at age 47 had come as a shock. Mr. Shakar’s debut novel, The Savage Girl, would be published in a week’s time, and he felt nervous about bringing it into the world without Mr. Jones.
At the same time, Mr. Shakar felt lucky. At 33 years old, he was being treated by his publisher like the next big thing, getting sent on photo shoots and being prepped for television interviews. His agent, young superstar Bill Clegg, had secured him a six-figure advance—a far cry from the $100 Mr. Shakar had received for his previous book, City in Love, a collection of short stories. For the first time in his life, Mr. Shakar didn’t have to worry about having enough money or being published.
“The prayer wasn’t to ask for anything,” Mr. Shakar wrote via email. “I just said to the empty room that I’d been given so much that if harder times were to come, I could take it.”
Harder times came. The next morning, Mr. Shakar was scheduled to fly back to Chicago, where he was a doctoral candidate in creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Instead he stood on the roof of his parents’ building and watched the twin towers burn. As Mr. Shakar described in a recent essay for The Millions.com, a year that began with the promise of literary stardom ended with his having to defend The Savage Girl against critics who deemed its humor “irrelevant” in an earnest, post-9/11 age.
The truth is that the book may have hit too close to home. Mr. Shakar’s novel, about a group of young trend spotters living in a disaster-prone metropolis called Middle City, was predictive of many things, including a dark age of “post-irony.” Even more damning, the novel was critical of the way decadent, marketing-centered culture conflates abstract values like beauty and love with products and fashions.
It was a satire with a heart of gold, but it wasn’t the kind of book anyone wanted to read while the president was urging Americans to exercise their freedom by heading to the shopping mall. Although Janet Maslin of The New York Times praised The Savage Girl’s sharp intelligence, she also called it “a relic of the recent past” and compared it unfavorably to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which was published Sept. 1, 2001, and was also a time capsule of times gone by. Mr. Franzen’s more traditional family saga, Ms. Maslin suggested, “will have no trouble finding its place in a newly irony-free atmosphere.”
The comparison to Mr. Franzen did not come out of the blue. The novelist was a friend of Mr. Shakar’s and provided a blurb for The Savage Girl that is now featured prominently on paperback editions of the book. The two writers first met in 1996, at a reading at the KGB bar when Mr. Shakar was promoting City in Love.
“I was struck, first of all, by his radiant niceness as a person,” Mr. Franzen wrote to The Observer via email, “and then, in his reading, by his commitment to letting formal experimentation and human emotion inform one another, rather than oppose or cancel one another.”
Mr. Franzen and Mr. Shakar kept in touch over the years, especially during the aftermath of 9/11, when both were faced with the task of selling a book during a time of national mourning. Ms. Maslin’s prediction turned out to be correct: Mr. Franzen’s book sold well, while The Savage Girl floundered. Mr. Shakar’s publisher, HarperCollins, scaled back publicity for the novel. Meanwhile, Mr. Shakar’s agent, Mr. Clegg, fell off the map, succumbing to a crack addiction he would eventually write about in his 2010 memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. But at the time, Mr. Shakar didn’t know anything of Mr. Clegg’s habit.
Mr. Shakar returned to Chicago, where he defended The Savage Girl as his dissertation. He began working on a second novel, which he envisioned as “a simple, spare book set in Chicago” that would explore the intersection of neurology, spirituality and technology. His jumping-off point was an article he’d read about a Canadian researcher who gave subjects “the feeling of God” by directing electromagnetic impulses into the brain.
The neurological research came easily to Mr. Shakar, but as he delved into the spiritual aspects of the narrative, he hit a wall. Although his mother was a master of Reiki, the Japanese stress reduction and healing technique, Mr. Shakar was skeptical of spiritual thought and had trouble getting inside the material. At the same time, his book was becoming more personal. Instead of setting it in Chicago, where he lived, Mr. Shakar found he wanted to write about New York City, where he’d grown up. But it was impossible to write about contemporary New York without writing about 9/11, and he was wary of approaching such politicized material.
“It took me a while to figure out I was more interested in showing the ways people were trying to adapt, rather than their initial reactions,” he said. “I decided to set it in 2006, because that seemed to be a time when 9/11 was passing from present reality into history. I was interested in the transition.”
Mr. Shakar also began to incorporate autobiographical elements. He created a protagonist whose materialist viewpoint roughly mirrored his own, and whose parents, a Reiki-master mother and actor father, were similar to his own. When a friend’s software company, a virtual world for children, was subcontracted by the military and transformed into a virtual training ground for soldiers, he used that, too. Finally, Mr. Shakar began practicing Zen meditation. At first he was reluctant to meditate because he associated it with a kind of contentment that would be antithetical to creativity, but after immersing himself in the work of mystic writers, his curiosity got the better of him. Once he started meditating, the book came into focus, and his themes began to overlap in new ways.
“As I wrote the book and was meditating and doing research and seeing how the story played out,” he said, “it struck me that, for all the loud argumentation on either side of this secular religious divide that really exploded in the post-9/11 period, the people who are really exploring the issue from the inside, the neuroscientists on the one hand, the monks and mediators of the major religions on the other, are oddly in agreement when it comes to the issue of the self—that it’s yet another belief system that may not be as real as we think it is.”
By 2007, he had a completed manuscript called Avatara, a word borrowed from Hindu cosmology. His new agent, whom he had acquired while Mr. Clegg was recovering from his addiction, sent the book out with high hopes, but when weeks without bidding dragged into months, Mr. Shakar was demoralized. The Savage Girl had been sold over a long weekend; it was his first time dealing with such prolonged rejection.
Desperate, Mr. Shakar called Mr. Clegg, who had recovered from his addiction and was once again taking clients. He asked his old friend to read the manuscript and give an honest assessment. Mr. Clegg agreed. “It was one of the better things a human being has done for me,” Mr. Shakar said.
Mr. Clegg didn’t think the book was working. “There was something missing, something that grounded the plot emotionally,” Mr. Clegg told The Observer. Mr. Shakar had to decide whether to scrap the book or to rewrite it. To make the decision even more difficult, Mr. Shakar was an untenured professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and he needed to secure publication of a second novel before his tenure came up for review.
Mr. Shakar found himself returning to the prayer he’d made on the eve of 9/11. Although he was embarrassed to admit it, for fear of sounding solipsistic, the moment had stuck with him over the years. He felt as if he’d entered into a contract, and that to fulfill it, he would have to rewrite his book. Returning to an idea he’d had early on in the writing process, Mr. Shakar gave his skeptical protagonist an idealistic twin whose cancer-induced coma compels him to embark on a spiritual journey. With that one change, all the esoteric pieces of his story clicked into place.
Two years later, he had a new book whose title, Luminarium, refers to a neurologically induced state in which subjects have “the feeling of God”—his initial inspiration. Luminarium is the opposite of the simple, spare book he had originally intended to write. Instead, it is a novel of interwoven metaphors for the mind that toggles between a Manhattan research hospital, the streets of New York, a virtual world called Urth and Orlando, Fla., where the “military-entertainment complex” has taken hold. At the heart of the book is a love story.
Mr. Shakar was convinced that Luminarium was the best work he’d done, but when Mr. Clegg sent the manuscript out, all the major publishers turned it down. At the same time, U.I.U.C. denied Mr. Shakar’s tenure because his book wasn’t yet under contract. His only recourse was to write a letter of appeal, citing positive responses from outside reviewers. In the meantime, Mr. Clegg kept sending out Luminarium.
“In terms of uncertainty, it was the most awful period of my life,” Mr. Shakar said.
Finally, after several months, Mr. Shakar heard first, from U.I.U.C., that the appeal had been decided in his favor and he would be awarded tenure, and then, a couple days later, that Mark Doten, a young editor at Soho Press, had fallen in love with the manuscript.
“It is quite rare as an editor to have a book land on your desk that is anything close to the scale or ambition of Luminarium,” Mr. Doten said. “I got it at the tail end of a period in which I’d been reading a great deal of Dostoevsky, and it came as something of a relief to get something so packed with ideas.” Advance reviews for the novel, which comes out next week, have been effusive. When asked if he is nervous about the book’s reception once it hits the shelves, Mr. Shakar demurred, then mentioned that he had just returned from a summer Zen retreat. “Let’s just say it came at the right time,” he said.