Some things Chicago writer Alex Shakar apparently boned up on in order to write his latest novel, Luminarium (Soho Press): Gaming and its attendant technology and practices, like coding. Setting up funky shop in lower Manhattan pre-9/11. Cutting-edge neurology, especially as it regards perception and establishing a sense of self. Hinduism and the negation of said self, not to mention all those attendant gods. Avatars, both virtual and theological. In Shakar's novel, Fred Brounian and his identical twin brother, George, were co-CEOs of a Second Life-esque start-up, Urth, until the World Trade Center attacks made their concept—a virtual happy place where people live in bubbles under the sea—ludicrous and, worse, unfundable. Enter the military-entertainment complex in the form of Armation, a defense contractor that sets the brothers to work composing disaster simulations before stealing their company out from under them. Now George is in a cancer-induced coma and Fred has moved back in with their boho parents in Brooklyn. Penniless and curious, Fred signs on as a guinea pig for a neurological study that begins eroding the boundary between his self and the rest of the world. Then he starts receiving strange e-mails and texts. From whom? Comatose George, it seems. This would've been wildly intriguing grist for a cyber-punk novel 30 years ago, but Shakar is no genre practitioner. Rather, the messages from beyond set off a dense, lengthy meditation—always interesting even when not exactly gripping. Fred is too obviously a construct, set up with sad-sack comic situations in order to suss the meaning of existence. Still, Shakar is a flesh-and-blood, intensely intelligent writer.