ALEX SHAKAR’s latest novel, Luminarium, won the 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. It was also named a Notable Book of the year by The Washington Post, an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times, and a best book of the year by Publishers Weekly, Booklist, the Austin Chronicle, and the Kansas City Star. His novel The Savage Girl was a New York Times Notable Book. His story collection City in Love won the FC2 National Fiction Competition. A Brooklyn native, he now lives in Chicago.
For those of us who are new to the subject, what exactly is medical materialism?
It’s a phrase William James coined to describe the reduction of mystical and religious experience to medical conditions. I don’t use the phrase in Luminarium, but it’s a question my protagonist Fred comes up against when he’s given some of the most meaningful (along with some of the most vexingly comical) experiences of his life in a laboratory by means of an electromagnetic helmet. It’s a question he comes up against in the tangle of lust, love, and in-part helmet-induced mystical oneness he feels with his experimenter, Mira. And when confronting the mysterious emails he gets from someone claiming to be the trapped spirit of his twin brother George, who, in material terms, lies dying in a cancer-induced coma. And when he starts learning Reiki from his mother, and meditating up on his rooftop, and feeling the edges of a very different kind of experience of life. In a broader sense, he’s confronting that reductive materialist view when trying to make sense of all the calamities and wonder that befall him. He can no longer quite be contained by it. And the pressure keeps building.
Where did your interest in the subject come from?
Too many directions to count. An article I read about a researcher who claimed to be able to induce divine presence experiences in a lab. My editor dying. 9/11. Watching a friend’s virtual world company morph itself from a cartoony place for children to a training ground for the Army. Hearing the phrase “Military Entertainment Complex.” Getting hypnosis for an illness. And, increasingly, all kinds of personal urgency.
An article in The Observer quotes a 10 year time frame for Luminarium, as well as some Zen meditation, to get the book written. How long did The Savage Girl take you?
About five and a half. I tend to rewrite a lot. Every draft takes me deeper, to a point where I see the story open up to a whole other level; and then, to realize the new vision, I have to start again almost anew. It can be frustrating, but exhilarating, too, discovering those new depths, the story—and maybe me, too, a bit—evolving.
You wrote the most beautiful essay for The Millions about the year of The Savage Girl’s publication. To summarize, the book garnered a six figure advance from Harper Collins and no shortage of enthusiasm. It’s publication date, however, was a week after 9/11. A book about the evils of consumerism and an age of “post-irony” was not primed to stick. To top it off, your editor died the week prior. In short, it was the perfect storm. What was the process of writing a new book, in the wake of all this fallout, like?
Thank you. I might have preferred wild success at the time. But as a writer, I was happy with what I had done with The Savage Girl. I was grateful for how the novel itself turned out and what it taught me. I managed to have at least slightly a sense of humor about my experiences before and after its publication (and there were some entirely positive experiences after, too). In a way, there was something cleansing about coming down to earth. I wish I could say that that I then set out to write a second novel that was bigger, more ambitious and complex. The truth is I hoped it would be a short, easy book that would trampoline me back into that glamorous and somewhat fatuous world I’d glimpsed. But what I needed was what I got: a real journey.
How has the post-publication for Luminarium been? I imagine it has been easier to publicize than The Savage Girl.
I don’t know that publicizing a literary novel can ever be easy in this age. But after some serious nailbiting, certain things fell into place. My agent coming back to the business after almost being gone forever. A deeply engaged editor and a seriously enthusiastic team at Soho Press. Some people out there who remembered me, and others who didn’t but gravitated to the book anyhow. One thing I’ve learned is to deeply appreciate every single person who takes my book into his or her life. I haven’t had to, this time, but I’ll happily read to audiences of one.
The New York Times review of Luminarium says, “It must finally be admitted that — like “Inception” or the “Matrix” trilogy — the elements in “Luminarium” don’t all add up. 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. This seems, on balance, the proper choice.” I wondered, though, if the “incoherence” of the novel might not have been your intent. Were you even aiming for the satisfaction of a neat resolution? It would seem to be somewhat unsuitable for a character losing the ability to discern reality.
In Rinzai Zen training, meditators are given koans to work on. A koan is literally a case study, existential riddle that takes the meditator into the scary broken heart of a paradox. It can’t be solved by sterile cogitation alone. Something more is required. The meditator has to keep plunging in, mind and body. The koan becomes, they say, like a ball of hot iron lodged in your throat. You can’t swallow it. You can’t spit it out. It evokes your doubt and faith and effort alike, and if you stick with it, everything shifts, and you see both it and yourself in a new light.
Luminarium, for the reader who wants it to be, is a koan of sorts. My hope is that something, whether big or small, can shift for the reader in the encounter with it. That’s the kind of coherence I’m interested in.
You’re an MFA graduate, a Ph.D. graduate and currently teaching fiction writing at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so I imagine you have some positive things to say about creative writing in academia. Or at least, some things to say about it.
I did my degrees mainly to have the time to write. I’d taken a couple years and developed some discipline on my own, which I think helped me—I wasn’t going so that someone would push me to write. I didn’t expect to get taught by anyone how to write (this was young and arrogant of me in part). But despite my low expectations, I learned a lot from my teachers, in both the writing and reading of literature, and from my fellow students. And the community that the programs offered was nurturing. And, I did, too, get that time to write, and read, and think and feel my way around the art and craft of writing. I wasn’t thinking about becoming a teacher, but teaching, too, is something I keep learning from. I think a teacher’s main job is to be as present as he or she can to a student’s work, and witness with the student where it wants to go.
What do you find that your students most often, or most, need to hear?
The pitcher’s on me.
If you had to choose, what advice would you say has been most helpful to you as a writer?
When I was a student in Austin, Michael Ondaatje visited and led a master class in which he mentioned that his first drafts were abominable, that he’d be ashamed to, and would never, show them to anyone. It was a gift, liberating, to hear that. In other words: your early drafts are where you dare to suck.
Last, but not least–why do you write?
I don’t know. Depends on the day. But there’s nothing like writing a great big story to smack up against your limits again and again and again. And breaking through—there’s nothing like that, either.