Picture yourself stepping into a small, cuboid room. In the center<br>squats an old recliner, upholstered in black vinyl. To the chair’s back<br>is affixed a jointed metal arm, possibly on loan from a desk lamp. At<br>the end of the arm, where the bulb and shade would have gone, hangs<br>instead a sparkly gold motorcycle helmet, a vintage, visorless number<br>with a chin strap.<br><br>“It’s safer than it looks,” the woman standing beside you says, with an<br>edge of humor. Her eyes and hair verge on black, her skin on white. Her<br>voice has a hoarseness you might associate with loud bars and lack of<br>sleep, but other things about her—from her black skirt and blouse to her<br>low, neatly fastened ponytail—suggest alarm clocks and early-morning<br>jogs. Her name is Mira, short on the i. Mira Egghart.<br><br>Safe isn’t the first word that comes to mind. A dozen or so symmetrical<br>holes have been bored into the helmet’s shell, and from each of these<br>holes protrudes a small metal cylinder, and from the top of each cylinder<br>sprouts blue and red wires, forming a kind of venous net over the hemisphere.<br>That first word might be demented. Or menacing. The thing has<br>the look of some backroom torture apparatus, slapped together from<br>junk on hand with the aid of a covert operative’s field manual.<br><br>“Have a seat,” says Mira Egghart.<br><br>Maybe you’re thinking better of it. This could be your last opportunity<br>to blurt apologies and flee. But just suppose that things haven’t been<br>going well for you lately. Assume, for the sake of argument, that in fact<br>things have been going very, very badly. I hesitate to say how badly. Let’s<br>say you founded a company that has more or less been stolen from you,<br>and now you’re just about broke. Broke and alone. Having split with<br>your fiancé months before. And that these circumstances barely even<br>register because someone very close to you has been losing a battle with<br>cancer. Or has slipped into a coma. Perhaps this person is your business<br>partner. Your best friend. Your brother. Your identical twin. Let’s go for<br>broke and say all of it, all the above, and that the thought of being back<br>out on the busy midday sidewalk—among all those people with places<br>to go and lives to lead—is enough to make the air turn viscous in your<br>lungs. Allow for the possibility, too, that—God help you—you’re already<br>a little bit into this Mira Egghart.<br><br>Presto. You’re Fred Brounian.<br><br>Or who he was then.<br><br>Fred Brounian sank lower in the chair than he’d anticipated. The<br>springs were worn. A tear in the vinyl ran along the inner wall of one<br>of the arms, bleeding yellow foam. He was facing the door, and next to<br>it, a rectangular window set into the wall, which he only then noticed.<br>Behind the glass lay another room, smaller still than this one, just deep<br>enough to fit two office chairs at what must have been a shallow, shelflike<br>desk supporting the two flatscreen monitors whose backs he could<br>see. As he watched, a tall, thin, sixtyish man with a gray Roman haircut<br>floated into view, like a walleye in an aquarium. The man eyed Fred<br>impassively over the straight edges of a pair of half-frame reading glasses<br>slightly wider than his head. Then the man, too, lowered himself into a<br>chair, sinking behind the monitor and out of view.<br><br>“We’ll be watching over you the whole time,” Mira Egghart explained.<br>She crossed to the other side of the recliner, taking a plastic jar from a steel<br>serving trolley. “I’m going to stick some electrodes to you. They’re just to<br>record brain waves and vitals. I’ll have to apply a little gel for conductivity.”<br>She confronted him with a glistening dollop on her fingertip, and<br>proceeded to rub cool spots of the stuff onto his temples and the center<br>of his forehead. Silvery rings adorned at least three of her fingers, moving<br>too fast and close for him to get a good look. After gelling each point, she<br>reached down to the table for a poker-chip-sized white pad and stuck<br>it on. Her eyes avoided his as she worked, darting instead around the<br>various features of his cranium.<br><br>“Undo the top two buttons of your shirt, please.”<br><br>She counted down the ribs from his clavicle with a sticky fingertip,<br>dabbed more gel, and painted a tiny, wet spiral over his heart. Her hair<br>smelled like freshly opened apples and something ineffable—dry ice,<br>he thought—one of those dizzying alchemies of hair product research.<br>From the degree to which she was leaning over him (he counseled him-<br>self not to look down her blouse), and the slight squint in her eyes, he<br>thought she must be nearsighted. The wrinkles at the corners suggested<br>she was around his age, mid-thirties. Her nose, though not indelicate,<br>had a slight finlike curve to it, which taken in combination with those<br>dark, peering eyes, gave her the slightly comical look of an inquisitive<br>bird. He wondered how many condemned men, as they were being<br>strapped into electric chairs, had spent their last moments checking out<br>the ladies seated among the witnesses.<br><br>She reached up and pressed the helmet onto his head.<br><br>“The session will last twenty minutes. All you have to do is sit back<br>and relax. Let’s get you reclined. The lever’s on the right.”<br><br>He did as told, window swinging away, ceiling swinging into view.<br>Directly above, in the firmament of perforated tiles, a poster of a spiral<br>galaxy had been taped. Mira Egghart’s upside-down head, like a wayward<br>planetoid, floated into view.<br><br>“You probably won’t want to, but if you feel you need to stop, just<br>say the word—the helmet has a mic attached. Or if you can’t speak, just<br>wave. Please don’t handle the helmet yourself.”<br><br>If I can’t speak . . .<br><br>She left the room, switching off the light. The instant she did so the<br>air grew swampy and his skin prickled. These days, Fred didn’t like the<br>dark, nor any hint of confinement. He could turn his head only slightly in<br>the helmet, but by keeping his eyes trained down his face, he was able to<br>see Mira now standing in the control room. She leaned forward over the<br>desk, reaching up toward the top of the window, her blouse taut against<br>her breasts and lifting to reveal a glittering stud in her navel as her fingers<br>clasped the pull of a black shade. She brought it down in one quick<br>motion, after which, just above the window, a dim red bulb went on.<br><br>As best he could with his head immobilized, Fred looked around<br>the room:<br><br>Steel trolley.<br><br>Jar of gel.<br><br>Red bulb.<br><br>Blacked-out window.<br><br>Galaxy wheeling above.<br><br>Ten days prior, an email had popped into Fred Brounian’s inbox:<br><br>Subject: Help, Avatara<br><br>From: George Brounian<br><br>He was at his usual booth in the cafeteria of the old Tisch Hospital<br>building, worlds away from the NYU Medical Center’s ultramodern lobby<br>and newer additions. It was lunchtime, the stink of gravy unwholesome<br>in these antiseptic conditions. If the place were really working the way<br>it should, he always thought, those microbial mashed-potato mounds,<br>along with everyone scooping them into their mouths, would have been<br>sprayed with disinfectant and swept down some chute with a biohazard<br>sign on the door.<br><br>As talismans against being thus expunged, the doctors and nurses<br>had their lab coats and scrubs and ID badges. Long-term visitors had<br>to improvise their defenses. At the table to his left, the woman with eyes<br>permanently blasted from crying had her stainless-steel knitting needles<br>and chain-link fences of pink and fuchsia yarn. The old guy in the threepiece<br>suit (the same one every day, with what looked like a chocolate<br>pudding stain on the vest) had his table-wide gauntlet of stock listings<br>(in search of the magic buy or sell that would pay his wife’s hospital bills,<br>Fred imagined). Fred himself, whenever he claimed a booth down here,<br>would swing open the barricades of his briefcase lid and laptop screen<br>with the authoritative air of a doctor sweeping the curtains around a sigmoidoscopy<br>patient. He, too, had his daily examinations to perform—<br>his tentative probes up the asshole of the cosmos, trying to figure out<br>what this unrelenting shitstorm showered down on him and his fellow<br>hapless sentients was all about, and whether there might be any effective<br>way to treat it.<br><br>On the day in question, six months to the day since George had been<br>wheeled through the ER doors, and three months, more or less, since a<br>team of IT workers had mercifully stuck a wireless router to the cafeteria<br>wall (visitors couldn’t websurf up in the wards), Fred had been reading<br>an online article by an MIT professor who claimed that the universe<br>was a giant quantum-mechanical computer, computing every possible<br>occurrence in parallel, spawning exponentially expanding infinitudes of<br>alternate realities at every moment—this particular reality being only<br>one decoherent history in this unfathomably vast multiverse of the possible.<br>He’d managed to find the hypothesis somewhat consoling, as it<br>seemed to imply that he had other twin brothers out there, an infinite<br>number of George Brounians, a portion of whom, by sheer statistical<br>necessity, wouldn’t be at this moment lying wrapped in tubes and wires<br>like some fly bound in spider silk, waiting to be eaten. He’d been half<br>entertaining the idea of leaning over to impart this happy news to the<br>knitting woman, when it struck him that there would also be an infinite<br>number of people whose parallel lives were more or less the same, and<br>an identical number whose lives were somehow worse. Picture an infinite<br>number of Fred Brounians, sitting in an infinite number of hospital<br>cafeterias, pawing an infinite number of five-day beards, contemplating<br>an infinite number of Fred Brounians, when in comes an email from<br>their comatose twin.<br><br>The body of the message was blank. The subject heading meant little<br>to him. Avatars—computer ones—were a regular part of their business.<br>There was also a mystical connotation, he was pretty sure, some kind<br>of god or apparition or something. Some of the less socially equipped<br>programmers in the office had been following an animated series called<br>“Avatar” on Nickelodeon. No other references immediately came to<br>mind. As for that final a, Fred didn’t know what it signified, though it<br>rounded out the word rather nicely. As for his brother’s name in the<br>sender heading, it might not have fazed him—after all, the message must<br>have been a server glitch, or a bit of viral marketing malware—were it<br>not for the word “help.” There were all too many reasons George could<br>need help at any given moment. One poorly propped pillow and his<br>air passage could be cut off. A little vomit or even postnasal drip could<br>asphyxiate him or slide down and infect his already damaged lungs.<br>Dozens of things needed to be done for him every day, and any lapse of<br>attention could result in his death. Not that Fred believed there could be<br>any connection between this email and a medical emergency. But there<br>he was, dazedly heading for the elevators.<br><br>He found George much the way he’d left him an hour ago, lips in that<br>leftward droop, head tilted to the same side.<br><br>He touched George’s shoulder. Spread open one of his eyes. Which<br>tracked nothing.<br><br>“Dude. You’ve got something to say to me, say it to my face. Hey.”<br>He tickled him. He knew the spot, of course, side of the ribs, a little to<br>the front. The slightest of flinches. Not even.<br><br>“Something happened?” asked a nurse, poised for a miracle.<br>He told her George had sent him an email. She thought this was funny.<br>He stayed with his brother for a while, doing the usual, massaging<br>George’s hands and feet to aid blood flow, smoothing the sheets to prevent<br>wrinkles from chafing his skin and giving him lesions, holding up<br>one end of a one-ended conversation, asking him what the deal was,<br>joking that next time he should have the courtesy to write more than a<br>subject line. Fred tried to keep it light around George, when he could. He<br>wanted the world to seem like a place his brother might care to revisit.<br>He was helping the nurse log roll George into a sling scale for the daily<br>weight check, when, with a jolt, he realized he’d left his laptop downstairs.<br>If it was gone, there’d be no affording another. He darted into the<br>hall, slalomed around gurneys, jumped down flights of stairs, reaching<br>the cafeteria just in time to see someone making off with it, with his<br>whole briefcase—a woman in a dark blouse and slacks and pulled-back<br>hair, heading for the exit. He was charging at her, about to call out, when<br>he got a line of sight on his table, and saw his own briefcase and laptop<br>just as he’d left them.<br><br>The woman, meanwhile, set down that other briefcase on a booth<br>wall, popped open its gold clasps, and extracted, with silver-ringed fingers,<br>a sheet of sky-blue paper and a roll of tape. He wondered—briefly,<br>nonsensically, he was tired—if the briefcase might be George’s, if the<br>woman might know him. Women never carried these big, boxy kinds,<br>and George, too, owned one of them; George had bought Fred and<br>himself a matching pair, their monogrammed initials the only difference,<br>ten years ago, when they’d started their company. The style had<br>been outdated even then, but that was the point—George had hoped<br>the old-school captain-of-industry look would help them feel more<br>CEOish. Returning to his table, Fred continued watching the woman.<br>She approached the bulletin board slowly, yet once there, attacked with<br>swift rips and fingerstrokes of the tape, then stepped back to regard her<br>handiwork, a little wide-eyed—proud, if still overwhelmed by the enormity<br>of what she’d done. Then she blinked, and spun, one hand shutting<br>the briefcase, the other pulling it after her out the door.<br><br>The old man licked his finger, and, with such slowness as might stop<br>time itself, turned a page of newsprint.<br><br>The knitting needles click-click-clicked.<br><br>After staring at the mysterious email a while, peering into the empty<br>pane where the message should have been, Fred looked up avatara on<br>a couple of reference sites. A Sanskrit word, literally meaning “descent,”<br>referring to incarnations of Hindu gods. Or, more generally, the descent<br>of the divine into the form of an individual. The avataras were innumerable,<br>legend went. Whenever there was imbalance, injustice, or discord,<br>they would appear to set things right.<br><br>The coincidence of the email’s arrival on this half-year anniversary<br>made him wonder if it was a prank of some kind. Probably not. Who<br>could have been ghoulish enough to send it? Whoever it was might<br>have known George, though. Avatara was the kind of word he would<br>have loved using, though Fred had never heard him use this one specifically.<br>George had been into such stuff—mudras and bandhas, siddhis<br>and miracles, an inner world he could care about, Fred imagined, precisely<br>because it was in no way existent, in no way subject to any law or<br>whim other than George’s own. Not that George ever found any answers<br>that really worked for him, or did so for long. Perhaps because his twin<br>tended toward idealism, Fred had become more specialized in doubt. It<br>didn’t exactly translate into practicality as often as he would have liked;<br>yet until recently, he’d prided himself on not being the type to sit around<br>thinking about God’s great plan for him, or even to sit around researching<br>the possibility that the universe was a giant quantum-mechanical computer.<br>Or to nearly tackle some woman for carrying George’s briefcase<br>(still calling it that—George’s briefcase—in his mind). Or to daydream<br>about avataras—what would they look like?—descending to hospital cafeterias<br>from the pure blue sky.<br><br>He’d been gazing off at that square of sky-blue paper for several minutes.<br>At last he walked to the bulletin board. His first reaction was to laugh,<br>silently. Not so much a laugh as an imagined laugh. His own, or George’s.<br>They had the same laugh, and these days, even in the simulations in his<br>head, it wasn’t always easy to tell them apart. Sometimes the solution was<br>for the laugh to replicate and divide, so that it was both of them, virtual<br>George and virtual Fred, sharing a laugh at this so-called study.<br><br>Do you feel . . .<br><br>Your life is without purpose?<br><br>Your days are without meaning?<br><br>There’s something about existence you’re just not getting?<br><br>Are you . . .<br><br>Agnostic??<br><br>Scientific study<br><br>George’s laugh was delighted at what seemed to be a developing<br>theme of the day. Fred’s own was just grimly amused. The word agnostic<br>made him suspicious. Some kind of Scientology pitch, probably. But no,<br>his Inner George was saying, look at that.<br><br>The smaller print at the bottom: Department of Neural Science,<br>New York University. Followed by a Web address. The pedigree made<br>Fred curious. He returned to his laptop and typed in the URL. A page<br>appeared, dense with text:<br><br>Among the healthful psychological qualities associated with individuals who<br>describe themselves as having experienced a “spiritual awakening” are:<br><br>• A sense of well-being and connectedness in the world.<br><br>• A sense of “being in the moment.”<br><br>• A sense of union with a “higher” force.<br><br>• A sense of calm detachment from everyday difficulties.<br><br>• A decrease in negative emotions such as anger and fear.<br><br>• An increase in positive emotions such as compassion and love.<br><br>By reproducing the “peak” experiences commonly associated with spiritual<br>awakening, this study hopes to help participants change their long-term<br>cognitive patterns, leading to enhanced self-efficacy and quality of life. It<br>should be stressed that these sessions will not involve religious indoctrination<br>of any kind.<br><br>The treatment, the site went on to state, involved visualization exercises<br>as well as subjecting the brain to mild but complex electromagnetic<br>impulses, the effects of which were not thought to be harmful or<br>permanent. Possible short-term side effects included nausea, dizziness,<br>and disorientation. No known long-term side effects, but as with any<br>new area of research, risks could not be ruled out. Those selected would<br>be paid fifty dollars for each of four weekly hour-long appointments,<br>and some follow-up interviews over the ensuing months. At the bottom<br>of the page were links to articles about other studies: one finding that<br>church attendees had stronger immune systems, while those without a<br>spiritual practice suffered the stress equivalent of forty years of smoking;<br>another concluding that people of faith exercised more.<br><br>I’m not really thinking about this, am I?<br><br>I believe you are, Freddo.<br><br>He closed the browser window, determined not to be. But staring<br>into the blue light of his screen, he began reconstructing the woman’s<br>face. And that doppelganger briefcase sailing out of the room. Fifty bucks<br>for an hour’s work, he thought. He was here at the hospital all the time<br>anyway. If the study were here, too . . .<br><br>Even with these reflections, he’d never have returned to that website<br>were it not for those other reasons, harder to explain, even to himself:<br>Because if George were the one sitting here, he—George—would have<br>done it in a heartbeat. And because a sizeable part of Fred wished it<br>were George here instead of him, felt it should have been. And because,<br>clicking on the link and filling out the questionnaire, Fred was able to<br>feel what George would have felt—a peculiar, tense electricity in his<br>chest and limbs, as though the study’s purported electromagnetic signals<br>were already coursing up through the keyboard. Like the onset of<br>panic but without the nausea. Like the opening hole of despair but more<br>like hunger. A sensation so long unfelt he couldn’t straightaway place it<br>as hope.<br><br>Ten minutes had passed, and if there was one thing Fred was now sure<br>of, it was that this fright wig of a helmet didn’t do a damned thing. It<br>felt just like any other helmet—padded, close, and hot. He couldn’t feel<br>anything resembling a current, couldn’t hear anything but, possibly, the<br>slightest hum, coming from somewhere behind the chair. From beyond<br>the room came other faint noises: footfall on the floor above; a distant<br>siren’s wail, trailing off so gradually it seemed never to fully end. The<br>shade was still down, the observation window black. What was the use<br>of having an observation window, if all they did was drop a shade over it<br>when the experiment began?<br><br>The experiment.<br><br>That word had never been used, of course. “Study” had so much more<br>reassuring a resonance, to the studied and studiers alike. But what was<br>it they were really studying here? The whole deal must be a sham of<br>some kind, he decided, one of those power-of-suggestion-type experiments,<br>an elaborate sugar pill administered to see whether the patient<br>might be suggestible enough to effect his own spiritual transformation.<br>He berated himself for not trusting his instincts and bolting the<br>moment he’d seen the suite’s tiny reception area, little more than a widened<br>hallway beyond a door off the elevator bank, into which a coat rack<br>and a couple of classroom chairs and a metal desk had been crammed.<br>The desk had nothing on it—not even a phone—and no one had been<br>sitting behind it. But he hadn’t been able to face the obvious. Sure. The<br>quirkily hot science nerd chick with the vaguely erotic gel rubdown, the<br>bespectacled wizard in the control room, the seven-page questionnaire<br>and three-page liability waiver—all verisimilitude enhancers, avenues<br>of suggestion-delivery. This gaudy piece of junk on his head—nothing<br>but a stage prop. Fifteen minutes now, it must be, and nothing. Who<br>knew, maybe they didn’t even expect him to imagine any experience<br>here; maybe they were testing something else altogether, like how long<br>a person might submit to sitting here like some mental defective in a<br>Burger King crown, waiting for his divine purpose to be revealed.<br><br>How dare they.<br><br>How dare they take advantage of desperate, unhappy people like<br>this. He was a second away from ripping the piece of crap off his head,<br>leaping out the chair.<br><br>Then what?<br><br>How about picking up the aluminum trolley and driving it through<br>the goddamned window?<br><br>Then what?<br><br>Where to then? The coma ward? The office of his ex-company? His<br>parents’ apartment?<br><br>The lava cooled in the pit of his chest. Expanding his lungs around<br>that congealed lump seemed more effort than it was worth. What was<br>the point? So sad it was funny, even, imagining he could shuffle in here<br>slope-shouldered, head under a cloud, and stride back out transfigured,<br>head poking above said cloud, bathed in epiphany. Funny/sad/<br>maddening. The combination was exhausting, and before he knew it<br>he was drowsy, drifting off, half in pain, half in pleasure, to a sound in<br>the room he hadn’t noticed before: a faint and, now that he was attuned<br>to it, almost painfully high-pitched tone. Sometimes, lying in bed late<br>at night, he’d hear small, insistent noises like this burrowing into his<br>ear. This tone, though, wasn’t a single note but an interval, possibly a<br>major seventh. There was a smell in the air, too, like wet earth and ozone,<br>and the sound was broadening and flattening out, sounding first like<br>applause. Then like escaping steam.<br><br>Then like a shearing of machine parts—a hot little saw burning from<br>the front to the back of his skull.<br><br>And here he goes, seeping out into the room.<br><br>No difference between his sweating palms and the sweating vinyl<br>of the chair. Between the compacted springs within the chair and the<br>tensing and relaxing of his muscles.<br><br>The helmet pulsating within him like a second scalp. The charge of<br>its net of wires his own hair tousling in a breeze. The chair beneath him<br>an internal pressure, the frame and stuffing the weight of his own bones<br>and innards. Air and time alike circulating within him. The high electric<br>whine: within him. Like a voice. Like a pulse. Like a single, continuous<br>thought, a focused point of attention expanding, carrying him outward<br>in all directions. The galaxy approaching, as if he might contain it all,<br>every last thing everywhere, but for the fear, rising up like an arm to pull<br>him back.<br><br>Maybe he moans, or maybe it’s the electric sound, sliding down again<br>to a low hum and ratcheting like the sealing of a vault, as, with a nauseating<br>snap, the world presses in:<br><br>Hot vinyl crawling beneath his palms.<br><br>Helmet crimping his skull.<br><br>Reddened galaxy glaring down at him—blindly—like the muscled<br>socket of an eye.<br><br>“So,” Mira said. “How did it feel in there?”<br><br>She sat nearby in an office chair, a notebook computer balanced on<br>her stockinged knees. Fred was noticing, in the light from the standing<br>lamp beside him, the faint outlines of contact lenses in those dark eyes<br>of hers.<br><br>She was examining him as well.<br><br>“Fred?”<br><br>“Yes. It felt . . .” He laughed. He shook his head.<br><br>“Why did you just laugh?”<br><br>“It’s just hard to find the words. I’m feeling a little . . .”<br><br>“Disoriented?”<br><br>“Spacey, yeah.”<br><br>“That will go away soon.”<br><br>He felt along his collarbones, the walls of his chest. “It felt like a jailbreak.”<br><br>“Oh? How so?”<br><br>As he attempted to describe the sensations he’d felt—the expansion,<br>the freedom, the envelopment of the chair and the air around him—she<br>began to type without breaking eye contact. Her typing was beyond fast,<br>more words, he was pretty sure, than he was managing to speak. She<br>seemed at once excited and intent on hiding her excitement behind a<br>veneer of objective inscrutability. It was hard to stay focused on what<br>he was saying. The soft clatter of keys made him hyperaware of being<br>a test subject. Yet, too, in a tactile kind of way, there was something<br>delightful about the sound. He could almost feel the little concave buttons<br>springing beneath his own fingertips, the electrical impulses zapping<br>through the circuitboard and the nerves of her arms. <BR><BR><i>Continues...</i> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Luminarium</b> by <b>Alex Shakar</b> Copyright © 2011 by Alex Shakar. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, a division of Random House, Inc.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.