Picture yourself stepping into a small, cuboid room. In the center
squats an old recliner, upholstered in black vinyl. To the chair’s back
is affixed a jointed metal arm, possibly on loan from a desk lamp. At
the end of the arm, where the bulb and shade would have gone, hangs
instead a sparkly gold motorcycle helmet, a vintage, visorless number
with a chin strap.
“It’s safer than it looks,” the woman standing beside you says, with an
edge of humor. Her eyes and hair verge on black, her skin on white. Her
voice has a hoarseness you might associate with loud bars and lack of
sleep, but other things about her—from her black skirt and blouse to her
low, neatly fastened ponytail—suggest alarm clocks and early-morning
jogs. Her name is Mira, short on the i. Mira Egghart.
Safe isn’t the first word that comes to mind. A dozen or so symmetrical
holes have been bored into the helmet’s shell, and from each of these
holes protrudes a small metal cylinder, and from the top of each cylinder
sprouts blue and red wires, forming a kind of venous net over the hemisphere.
That first word might be demented. Or menacing. The thing has
the look of some backroom torture apparatus, slapped together from
junk on hand with the aid of a covert operative’s field manual.
“Have a seat,” says Mira Egghart.
Maybe you’re thinking better of it. This could be your last opportunity
to blurt apologies and flee. But just suppose that things haven’t been
going well for you lately. Assume, for the sake of argument, that in fact
things have been going very, very badly. I hesitate to say how badly. Let’s
say you founded a company that has more or less been stolen from you,
and now you’re just about broke. Broke and alone. Having split with
your fiancé months before. And that these circumstances barely even
register because someone very close to you has been losing a battle with
cancer. Or has slipped into a coma. Perhaps this person is your business
partner. Your best friend. Your brother. Your identical twin. Let’s go for
broke and say all of it, all the above, and that the thought of being back
out on the busy midday sidewalk—among all those people with places
to go and lives to lead—is enough to make the air turn viscous in your
lungs. Allow for the possibility, too, that—God help you—you’re already
a little bit into this Mira Egghart.
Presto. You’re Fred Brounian.
Or who he was then.
Fred Brounian sank lower in the chair than he’d anticipated. The
springs were worn. A tear in the vinyl ran along the inner wall of one
of the arms, bleeding yellow foam. He was facing the door, and next to
it, a rectangular window set into the wall, which he only then noticed.
Behind the glass lay another room, smaller still than this one, just deep
enough to fit two office chairs at what must have been a shallow, shelflike
desk supporting the two flatscreen monitors whose backs he could
see. As he watched, a tall, thin, sixtyish man with a gray Roman haircut
floated into view, like a walleye in an aquarium. The man eyed Fred
impassively over the straight edges of a pair of half-frame reading glasses
slightly wider than his head. Then the man, too, lowered himself into a
chair, sinking behind the monitor and out of view.
“We’ll be watching over you the whole time,” Mira Egghart explained.
She crossed to the other side of the recliner, taking a plastic jar from a steel
serving trolley. “I’m going to stick some electrodes to you. They’re just to
record brain waves and vitals. I’ll have to apply a little gel for conductivity.”
She confronted him with a glistening dollop on her fingertip, and
proceeded to rub cool spots of the stuff onto his temples and the center
of his forehead. Silvery rings adorned at least three of her fingers, moving
too fast and close for him to get a good look. After gelling each point, she
reached down to the table for a poker-chip-sized white pad and stuck
it on. Her eyes avoided his as she worked, darting instead around the
various features of his cranium.
“Undo the top two buttons of your shirt, please.”
She counted down the ribs from his clavicle with a sticky fingertip,
dabbed more gel, and painted a tiny, wet spiral over his heart. Her hair
smelled like freshly opened apples and something ineffable—dry ice,
he thought—one of those dizzying alchemies of hair product research.
From the degree to which she was leaning over him (he counseled him-
self not to look down her blouse), and the slight squint in her eyes, he
thought she must be nearsighted. The wrinkles at the corners suggested
she was around his age, mid-thirties. Her nose, though not indelicate,
had a slight finlike curve to it, which taken in combination with those
dark, peering eyes, gave her the slightly comical look of an inquisitive
bird. He wondered how many condemned men, as they were being
strapped into electric chairs, had spent their last moments checking out
the ladies seated among the witnesses.
She reached up and pressed the helmet onto his head.
“The session will last twenty minutes. All you have to do is sit back
and relax. Let’s get you reclined. The lever’s on the right.”
He did as told, window swinging away, ceiling swinging into view.
Directly above, in the firmament of perforated tiles, a poster of a spiral
galaxy had been taped. Mira Egghart’s upside-down head, like a wayward
planetoid, floated into view.
“You probably won’t want to, but if you feel you need to stop, just
say the word—the helmet has a mic attached. Or if you can’t speak, just
wave. Please don’t handle the helmet yourself.”
If I can’t speak . . .
She left the room, switching off the light. The instant she did so the
air grew swampy and his skin prickled. These days, Fred didn’t like the
dark, nor any hint of confinement. He could turn his head only slightly in
the helmet, but by keeping his eyes trained down his face, he was able to
see Mira now standing in the control room. She leaned forward over the
desk, reaching up toward the top of the window, her blouse taut against
her breasts and lifting to reveal a glittering stud in her navel as her fingers
clasped the pull of a black shade. She brought it down in one quick
motion, after which, just above the window, a dim red bulb went on.
As best he could with his head immobilized, Fred looked around
Jar of gel.
Galaxy wheeling above.
Ten days prior, an email had popped into Fred Brounian’s inbox:
Subject: Help, Avatara
From: George Brounian
He was at his usual booth in the cafeteria of the old Tisch Hospital
building, worlds away from the NYU Medical Center’s ultramodern lobby
and newer additions. It was lunchtime, the stink of gravy unwholesome
in these antiseptic conditions. If the place were really working the way
it should, he always thought, those microbial mashed-potato mounds,
along with everyone scooping them into their mouths, would have been
sprayed with disinfectant and swept down some chute with a biohazard
sign on the door.
As talismans against being thus expunged, the doctors and nurses
had their lab coats and scrubs and ID badges. Long-term visitors had
to improvise their defenses. At the table to his left, the woman with eyes
permanently blasted from crying had her stainless-steel knitting needles
and chain-link fences of pink and fuchsia yarn. The old guy in the threepiece
suit (the same one every day, with what looked like a chocolate
pudding stain on the vest) had his table-wide gauntlet of stock listings
(in search of the magic buy or sell that would pay his wife’s hospital bills,
Fred imagined). Fred himself, whenever he claimed a booth down here,
would swing open the barricades of his briefcase lid and laptop screen
with the authoritative air of a doctor sweeping the curtains around a sigmoidoscopy
patient. He, too, had his daily examinations to perform—
his tentative probes up the asshole of the cosmos, trying to figure out
what this unrelenting shitstorm showered down on him and his fellow
hapless sentients was all about, and whether there might be any effective
way to treat it.
On the day in question, six months to the day since George had been
wheeled through the ER doors, and three months, more or less, since a
team of IT workers had mercifully stuck a wireless router to the cafeteria
wall (visitors couldn’t websurf up in the wards), Fred had been reading
an online article by an MIT professor who claimed that the universe
was a giant quantum-mechanical computer, computing every possible
occurrence in parallel, spawning exponentially expanding infinitudes of
alternate realities at every moment—this particular reality being only
one decoherent history in this unfathomably vast multiverse of the possible.
He’d managed to find the hypothesis somewhat consoling, as it
seemed to imply that he had other twin brothers out there, an infinite
number of George Brounians, a portion of whom, by sheer statistical
necessity, wouldn’t be at this moment lying wrapped in tubes and wires
like some fly bound in spider silk, waiting to be eaten. He’d been half
entertaining the idea of leaning over to impart this happy news to the
knitting woman, when it struck him that there would also be an infinite
number of people whose parallel lives were more or less the same, and
an identical number whose lives were somehow worse. Picture an infinite
number of Fred Brounians, sitting in an infinite number of hospital
cafeterias, pawing an infinite number of five-day beards, contemplating
an infinite number of Fred Brounians, when in comes an email from
their comatose twin.
The body of the message was blank. The subject heading meant little
to him. Avatars—computer ones—were a regular part of their business.
There was also a mystical connotation, he was pretty sure, some kind
of god or apparition or something. Some of the less socially equipped
programmers in the office had been following an animated series called
“Avatar” on Nickelodeon. No other references immediately came to
mind. As for that final a, Fred didn’t know what it signified, though it
rounded out the word rather nicely. As for his brother’s name in the
sender heading, it might not have fazed him—after all, the message must
have been a server glitch, or a bit of viral marketing malware—were it
not for the word “help.” There were all too many reasons George could
need help at any given moment. One poorly propped pillow and his
air passage could be cut off. A little vomit or even postnasal drip could
asphyxiate him or slide down and infect his already damaged lungs.
Dozens of things needed to be done for him every day, and any lapse of
attention could result in his death. Not that Fred believed there could be
any connection between this email and a medical emergency. But there
he was, dazedly heading for the elevators.
He found George much the way he’d left him an hour ago, lips in that
leftward droop, head tilted to the same side.
He touched George’s shoulder. Spread open one of his eyes. Which
“Dude. You’ve got something to say to me, say it to my face. Hey.”
He tickled him. He knew the spot, of course, side of the ribs, a little to
the front. The slightest of flinches. Not even.
“Something happened?” asked a nurse, poised for a miracle.
He told her George had sent him an email. She thought this was funny.
He stayed with his brother for a while, doing the usual, massaging
George’s hands and feet to aid blood flow, smoothing the sheets to prevent
wrinkles from chafing his skin and giving him lesions, holding up
one end of a one-ended conversation, asking him what the deal was,
joking that next time he should have the courtesy to write more than a
subject line. Fred tried to keep it light around George, when he could. He
wanted the world to seem like a place his brother might care to revisit.
He was helping the nurse log roll George into a sling scale for the daily
weight check, when, with a jolt, he realized he’d left his laptop downstairs.
If it was gone, there’d be no affording another. He darted into the
hall, slalomed around gurneys, jumped down flights of stairs, reaching
the cafeteria just in time to see someone making off with it, with his
whole briefcase—a woman in a dark blouse and slacks and pulled-back
hair, heading for the exit. He was charging at her, about to call out, when
he got a line of sight on his table, and saw his own briefcase and laptop
just as he’d left them.
The woman, meanwhile, set down that other briefcase on a booth
wall, popped open its gold clasps, and extracted, with silver-ringed fingers,
a sheet of sky-blue paper and a roll of tape. He wondered—briefly,
nonsensically, he was tired—if the briefcase might be George’s, if the
woman might know him. Women never carried these big, boxy kinds,
and George, too, owned one of them; George had bought Fred and
himself a matching pair, their monogrammed initials the only difference,
ten years ago, when they’d started their company. The style had
been outdated even then, but that was the point—George had hoped
the old-school captain-of-industry look would help them feel more
CEOish. Returning to his table, Fred continued watching the woman.
She approached the bulletin board slowly, yet once there, attacked with
swift rips and fingerstrokes of the tape, then stepped back to regard her
handiwork, a little wide-eyed—proud, if still overwhelmed by the enormity
of what she’d done. Then she blinked, and spun, one hand shutting
the briefcase, the other pulling it after her out the door.
The old man licked his finger, and, with such slowness as might stop
time itself, turned a page of newsprint.
The knitting needles click-click-clicked.
After staring at the mysterious email a while, peering into the empty
pane where the message should have been, Fred looked up avatara on
a couple of reference sites. A Sanskrit word, literally meaning “descent,”
referring to incarnations of Hindu gods. Or, more generally, the descent
of the divine into the form of an individual. The avataras were innumerable,
legend went. Whenever there was imbalance, injustice, or discord,
they would appear to set things right.
The coincidence of the email’s arrival on this half-year anniversary
made him wonder if it was a prank of some kind. Probably not. Who
could have been ghoulish enough to send it? Whoever it was might
have known George, though. Avatara was the kind of word he would
have loved using, though Fred had never heard him use this one specifically.
George had been into such stuff—mudras and bandhas, siddhis
and miracles, an inner world he could care about, Fred imagined, precisely
because it was in no way existent, in no way subject to any law or
whim other than George’s own. Not that George ever found any answers
that really worked for him, or did so for long. Perhaps because his twin
tended toward idealism, Fred had become more specialized in doubt. It
didn’t exactly translate into practicality as often as he would have liked;
yet until recently, he’d prided himself on not being the type to sit around
thinking about God’s great plan for him, or even to sit around researching
the possibility that the universe was a giant quantum-mechanical computer.
Or to nearly tackle some woman for carrying George’s briefcase
(still calling it that—George’s briefcase—in his mind). Or to daydream
about avataras—what would they look like?—descending to hospital cafeterias
from the pure blue sky.
He’d been gazing off at that square of sky-blue paper for several minutes.
At last he walked to the bulletin board. His first reaction was to laugh,
silently. Not so much a laugh as an imagined laugh. His own, or George’s.
They had the same laugh, and these days, even in the simulations in his
head, it wasn’t always easy to tell them apart. Sometimes the solution was
for the laugh to replicate and divide, so that it was both of them, virtual
George and virtual Fred, sharing a laugh at this so-called study.
Do you feel . . .
Your life is without purpose?
Your days are without meaning?
There’s something about existence you’re just not getting?
Are you . . .
George’s laugh was delighted at what seemed to be a developing
theme of the day. Fred’s own was just grimly amused. The word agnostic
made him suspicious. Some kind of Scientology pitch, probably. But no,
his Inner George was saying, look at that.
The smaller print at the bottom: Department of Neural Science,
New York University. Followed by a Web address. The pedigree made
Fred curious. He returned to his laptop and typed in the URL. A page
appeared, dense with text:
Among the healthful psychological qualities associated with individuals who
describe themselves as having experienced a “spiritual awakening” are:
• A sense of well-being and connectedness in the world.
• A sense of “being in the moment.”
• A sense of union with a “higher” force.
• A sense of calm detachment from everyday difficulties.
• A decrease in negative emotions such as anger and fear.
• An increase in positive emotions such as compassion and love.
By reproducing the “peak” experiences commonly associated with spiritual
awakening, this study hopes to help participants change their long-term
cognitive patterns, leading to enhanced self-efficacy and quality of life. It
should be stressed that these sessions will not involve religious indoctrination
of any kind.
The treatment, the site went on to state, involved visualization exercises
as well as subjecting the brain to mild but complex electromagnetic
impulses, the effects of which were not thought to be harmful or
permanent. Possible short-term side effects included nausea, dizziness,
and disorientation. No known long-term side effects, but as with any
new area of research, risks could not be ruled out. Those selected would
be paid fifty dollars for each of four weekly hour-long appointments,
and some follow-up interviews over the ensuing months. At the bottom
of the page were links to articles about other studies: one finding that
church attendees had stronger immune systems, while those without a
spiritual practice suffered the stress equivalent of forty years of smoking;
another concluding that people of faith exercised more.
I’m not really thinking about this, am I?
I believe you are, Freddo.
He closed the browser window, determined not to be. But staring
into the blue light of his screen, he began reconstructing the woman’s
face. And that doppelganger briefcase sailing out of the room. Fifty bucks
for an hour’s work, he thought. He was here at the hospital all the time
anyway. If the study were here, too . . .
Even with these reflections, he’d never have returned to that website
were it not for those other reasons, harder to explain, even to himself:
Because if George were the one sitting here, he—George—would have
done it in a heartbeat. And because a sizeable part of Fred wished it
were George here instead of him, felt it should have been. And because,
clicking on the link and filling out the questionnaire, Fred was able to
feel what George would have felt—a peculiar, tense electricity in his
chest and limbs, as though the study’s purported electromagnetic signals
were already coursing up through the keyboard. Like the onset of
panic but without the nausea. Like the opening hole of despair but more
like hunger. A sensation so long unfelt he couldn’t straightaway place it
Ten minutes had passed, and if there was one thing Fred was now sure
of, it was that this fright wig of a helmet didn’t do a damned thing. It
felt just like any other helmet—padded, close, and hot. He couldn’t feel
anything resembling a current, couldn’t hear anything but, possibly, the
slightest hum, coming from somewhere behind the chair. From beyond
the room came other faint noises: footfall on the floor above; a distant
siren’s wail, trailing off so gradually it seemed never to fully end. The
shade was still down, the observation window black. What was the use
of having an observation window, if all they did was drop a shade over it
when the experiment began?
That word had never been used, of course. “Study” had so much more
reassuring a resonance, to the studied and studiers alike. But what was
it they were really studying here? The whole deal must be a sham of
some kind, he decided, one of those power-of-suggestion-type experiments,
an elaborate sugar pill administered to see whether the patient
might be suggestible enough to effect his own spiritual transformation.
He berated himself for not trusting his instincts and bolting the
moment he’d seen the suite’s tiny reception area, little more than a widened
hallway beyond a door off the elevator bank, into which a coat rack
and a couple of classroom chairs and a metal desk had been crammed.
The desk had nothing on it—not even a phone—and no one had been
sitting behind it. But he hadn’t been able to face the obvious. Sure. The
quirkily hot science nerd chick with the vaguely erotic gel rubdown, the
bespectacled wizard in the control room, the seven-page questionnaire
and three-page liability waiver—all verisimilitude enhancers, avenues
of suggestion-delivery. This gaudy piece of junk on his head—nothing
but a stage prop. Fifteen minutes now, it must be, and nothing. Who
knew, maybe they didn’t even expect him to imagine any experience
here; maybe they were testing something else altogether, like how long
a person might submit to sitting here like some mental defective in a
Burger King crown, waiting for his divine purpose to be revealed.
How dare they.
How dare they take advantage of desperate, unhappy people like
this. He was a second away from ripping the piece of crap off his head,
leaping out the chair.
How about picking up the aluminum trolley and driving it through
the goddamned window?
Where to then? The coma ward? The office of his ex-company? His
The lava cooled in the pit of his chest. Expanding his lungs around
that congealed lump seemed more effort than it was worth. What was
the point? So sad it was funny, even, imagining he could shuffle in here
slope-shouldered, head under a cloud, and stride back out transfigured,
head poking above said cloud, bathed in epiphany. Funny/sad/
maddening. The combination was exhausting, and before he knew it
he was drowsy, drifting off, half in pain, half in pleasure, to a sound in
the room he hadn’t noticed before: a faint and, now that he was attuned
to it, almost painfully high-pitched tone. Sometimes, lying in bed late
at night, he’d hear small, insistent noises like this burrowing into his
ear. This tone, though, wasn’t a single note but an interval, possibly a
major seventh. There was a smell in the air, too, like wet earth and ozone,
and the sound was broadening and flattening out, sounding first like
applause. Then like escaping steam.
Then like a shearing of machine parts—a hot little saw burning from
the front to the back of his skull.
And here he goes, seeping out into the room.
No difference between his sweating palms and the sweating vinyl
of the chair. Between the compacted springs within the chair and the
tensing and relaxing of his muscles.
The helmet pulsating within him like a second scalp. The charge of
its net of wires his own hair tousling in a breeze. The chair beneath him
an internal pressure, the frame and stuffing the weight of his own bones
and innards. Air and time alike circulating within him. The high electric
whine: within him. Like a voice. Like a pulse. Like a single, continuous
thought, a focused point of attention expanding, carrying him outward
in all directions. The galaxy approaching, as if he might contain it all,
every last thing everywhere, but for the fear, rising up like an arm to pull
Maybe he moans, or maybe it’s the electric sound, sliding down again
to a low hum and ratcheting like the sealing of a vault, as, with a nauseating
snap, the world presses in:
Hot vinyl crawling beneath his palms.
Helmet crimping his skull.
Reddened galaxy glaring down at him—blindly—like the muscled
socket of an eye.
“So,” Mira said. “How did it feel in there?”
She sat nearby in an office chair, a notebook computer balanced on
her stockinged knees. Fred was noticing, in the light from the standing
lamp beside him, the faint outlines of contact lenses in those dark eyes
She was examining him as well.
“Yes. It felt . . .” He laughed. He shook his head.
“Why did you just laugh?”
“It’s just hard to find the words. I’m feeling a little . . .”
“That will go away soon.”
He felt along his collarbones, the walls of his chest. “It felt like a jailbreak.”
“Oh? How so?”
As he attempted to describe the sensations he’d felt—the expansion,
the freedom, the envelopment of the chair and the air around him—she
began to type without breaking eye contact. Her typing was beyond fast,
more words, he was pretty sure, than he was managing to speak. She
seemed at once excited and intent on hiding her excitement behind a
veneer of objective inscrutability. It was hard to stay focused on what
he was saying. The soft clatter of keys made him hyperaware of being
a test subject. Yet, too, in a tactile kind of way, there was something
delightful about the sound. He could almost feel the little concave buttons
springing beneath his own fingertips, the electrical impulses zapping
through the circuitboard and the nerves of her arms.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Luminarium by Alex Shakar. Copyright © 2011 by Alex Shakar. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.