A Piercing Gaze and Glimpses of the Beyond :: Gary Braver’s ’Tunnel Vision’

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday June 30, 2011

Boston-based author Gary Braver has written a small library of bio-medical thrillers that look at different aspects of how science can go wrong in the hands of the greedy, the psychologically maimed, and the just plain evil.

"Gary Braver" is the pen name of Gary Goshgarian, a professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston. Under his own name, Braver has written three novels: The adventure thriller "Atlantis Fire," horror novel "The Stone Circle," and his first biomedical thriller, "Rough Beast."

As Gary Braver, the accomplished author has completed five novels, and is midway through a sixth, which he says will be something of a departure. Looking at his work so far, there's a commonality of well-rendered prose and expert plotting, but over and above those qualities, the books, taken together, represent a career-spanning meditation on the human frailty with which we struggle, and the virtues to which we aspire.

With "Elixir," Braver speculated on the drawbacks, as well as the benefits, of extended youth. Those who used a special, newly developed pharmaceutical didn't have to worry about aging, but, in a Dorian Gray-worthy twist, should their access to the drug be cut off, they faced a horrible price... though perhaps not as shocking as the price that the world at large might pay on the geopolitical stage if and when the new drug were to become publicly available.

But what if life could be made better not by making it longer, but by amping IQ? With "Gray Matter," Braver considered the ramifications of enhancing human smarts, depicting a possible near future in which intelligence brokers sell their brain-boosting technique for a hefty profit... and at the cost of innocent lives.

Some would say that the essence of life -- and perhaps of intelligence -- lies with memory. Braver gave come thought to this, too, with "Flashback," a novel in which a groundbreaking treatment for Alzheimer's disease also carries the prospect for sharpening memory, and unlocking secrets hidden in the dark recesses of the winding cortex.

In a riff on the gap between inner and outer beauty -- and the questionable emphasis placed on the external -- Braver turned to the realm of plastic surgery in "Skin Deep," a harrowing thriller centered around the deaths of beautiful women with one thing in common: Each had sought medical intervention in the battle against age and minor physical imperfections.

A common theme of increasing what we already possess to some glorious height (or, as Braver warns, perverse depth) is apparent in these books. But with his newest thriller, "Tunnel Vision," Braver reaches for the transcendent. What possibilities for life lay outside of the body? What if all our efforts to expand human potential through medicine miss the point, and the spiritual realm is where we might unlock our greatest potential?

Or, as the book's tagline has it: "What if you didn't have to die to know if there's a Heaven? And what if the evidence could get you killed?"

Braver, relaxing at a restaurant near Harvard Square with EDGE, chuckled over the arc that his stories have, as a whole, followed so far.

"I think the older I get, the higher I reach," Braver ruminated. "There seems to be a progression: boosting intelligence, boosting longevity, finding a cure of Alzheimer's disease. If all else fails you get a new face. And now, finding God. You can see a pattern of progression keeping pace with my aging!

"The task for these books, ever since 'Elixir,' has always been that they should be high-concept thrillers, but that they should also be literate page-turners with strong female characters," Braver added. "They are centered on the family, and contain fantasies along the lines of a 'Frankenstein' message: Watch out what you wish for."

When it came to taking that step beyond the confines of fleshly existence, Braver had to be prepared for something even more extreme than cutting-edge plastic surgery or revolutionary neuroscience. He had to be ready to tackle the very idea of life beyond life as we know it on the physical plane, and the implications that non-corporeal consciousness might have for our concepts of God.

The plot centers around a young graduate student named Zack Kashian (who, like many of Braver's protagonists, is of Armenian descent -- a wink at Braver's, which is to say Goshgarian's, own lineage). Zack has a whole host of problems. As a boy, he saw his parents' marriage collapse following the murder of his older brother, killed by a group of young men in an anti-gay hate crime. His father, seeking solace in religion, left the family to become a monk; his mother, feeling wronged by God twice over, turns away from faith.

Zack himself is an atheist, but after a bicycle accident and several weeks in a coma, he awakens to discover that he has become an object of reverence to religious believers after video of himself murmuring the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic is posted to YouTube. Horrified, Zack seeks some sort of rational explanation. But his post-accident life is markedly different: Zack begins to experience what seem to be psychic flashes.

When he's recruited by a research study investigating claims of a spirit realm as described by near-death survivors, Zack's psychic episodes become stronger and more disturbing. He begins having detailed dreams about murders -- dreams that turn out to be true. Has Zack made a psychic connection with a killer from beyond the grave? And if he has, is Zack himself now an instrument of terror and death?

A Life Beyond? Or a Beautiful Dream?

"I don't know if there is an afterlife, but the older I get, the more I'm in favor of one," Braver quipped. "I've never had a near-death experience, with the exception of some department meetings, but the fascination has always been there. It's the oldest and greatest mystery of all: Do we die and that's all? Is that it? Blotto? Or, is there a separation of sentience, soul, spirit, or whatever, that transcends to another realm? It's a great debate, and it's a subject of science fiction [as much as of religion].

"I think that when one examines one's own mortality, one wonders," Braver continued. "That brought me to the near death experience research. I read up on it, and that gave me fascinating material, because I have never had an out of body experience. I never saw EMTs give me CPR, I never died on the operating table and watched people paddle me from up above. I haven't experienced any of that, but I read about it, and those people who write about it have bestsellers and millions of fans and believers."

Braver does meticulous research for each of his intricately plotted novels, which combine science and story in a gripping way. Did he find any convincing data to suggest that life continues past the measure of a person's days on this earthly plane?

"I don't believe it," Braver said of the white light's promise of a world to come, adopting the rational view that near death experiences, with their beauty and serenity, are the result of an outpouring of brain chemicals in life's last moments. "I think it's more a matter of neurobiology than theology. But it gave me a point of conflict to work on for this novel."

Just to be sure, EDGE asked again: All of that research yielded no juicy, compelling evidence for a hereafter?

"No; not for the supernatural," Braver reiterated. "But compelling evidence for the rational, for neurobiology, and that's what fascinated me."

Accordingly, Braver set out to map just how the elements of his story would fit with the tools and methods of science. How would he construct a thriller around such a hard concept as investigating the idea that life might continue, in some form, after physical death? Perhaps more importantly, how would he avoid going down familiar paths to dramatic dead-ends, such as with the movie "Flatliners," from the 1980s, which also told a story of a kind of near-death research gone wrong?

"The very first thing I did was decide, 'If I'm going to write this novel, I'm going to need some scientific Maguffin that is going to give me a pseudo-scientific explanation for how we can measure the question of whether mind separates from meat at death,' " Braver told EDGE.

The answer came from a neuroscientist friend who pointed Braver to some published articles related to the subject. It seems that, real or not, human spiritual experiences are either enabled by -- or created wholesale by -- a specialized structure in the brain.

"I call it the 'God lobe' in the book," Braver recounted. "I don't know if I got that term from somebody else or made it up myself, but it really is the case that there's evidence that we may be wired to find God.

"The neural circuitry of spiritual people is, in fact, different from that of nonbelievers," Braver added. "They know that from having gotten spiritual people to volunteer, including Carmelite nuns, Benedictine monks, fakirs in India, dervishes, priests. They put these people in functional MRI machines and they watched in real time as they induced themselves into a spiritual trance. Their metabolisms would decrease, but their brainwaves would have particular electrical patterns. The common denominator of these experiences was that they seemed to affect the parietal lobe, and that started to confirm what some people believe, that there is a neurobiological basis for spiritual inclinations.

"All of my books have the same caveat: Watch out what you wish for!"

"That's fascinating to me," Braver continued. "And then, of course, the next question is: If people are programmed to be spiritual, programmed to feel that they are in communication with the spiritual world -- dead relatives, angels, God, or whatever -- then there should be an evolutionary explanation for it. This is biology and there's an evolutionary explanation for almost everything in our makeup."

One possibility: From our earliest days as sentient beings -- so early, in fact, that we were not yet homo sapiens -- the hard work of physical survival was aided by a hard-wired notion that there might be something more: That our earthly travails might be soothed and rewarded, and our challenges in life authoritatively guided, by living, attentive entities from beyond life as we know it.

"It seems that the more spiritual person, going back 200,000 years in the history of homo sapiens, that maybe that was the magnet that helped hold communities together -- people who were spiritual," Braver said. " 'I'm in communication with a dead ancestor, he's talking to me...' There seems to be some Darwinian backup to this theory, and there is hard neurophysiologic evidence that spiritual people have more active 'spiritual brain lobes' than others do. That's what gave me the science to get everything started and justify all the action that unfolds in the novel."

Though the story may bring some esoteric science into play, the motivations remain universal and rooted in deep human needs. What's more, Braver engages his readers with one of the most stirring and primeval of all philosophical questions: Are we only this? Are we more? Do we need to be? It's a question that different people respond to in different ways, which "Tunnel Vision" reflects in the responses that Zack and his parents have when faced by mortality and grief.

"There is no evidence either way, and of course the homophobic killing of Zack's brother years before has killed God for their mother," Braver noted, going on to say a little more about a key part of the back-story: The bias killing of Zack's gay older brother. "It's despicable," Braver said. "All of those forms of discrimination -- claims that being gay is something that people 'learn' -- all of that gave the book another dimension that I liked."

Being and Necessity

"The metaphor of the title extends beyond visions of tunnels and celestial light," Braver clarified. "It also refers to the narrow-mindedness of both the rationalists who say there is no spiritual aspect to the universe, and to the religious people who insist that there is, and the anti-gay crowd. The tunnel vision metaphor applies to a lot of folks."

Being a college professor has kept Braver in touch with the high-tech realities of how young people communicate and the how they can get into kinds of trouble. Those elements find their way into "Tunnel Vision," not only in the plot point of the YouTube video showing Zack praying in an ancient language while comatose, but also in Zack's not quite so pious habit of gambling online. As a father, Braver could understand the emotions of Zack's mother, who sees him getting into debt over his head.

"I have two sons who passed through those years -- one is still in his 20s," Braver said. "My son liked to gamble, and we were worried that he was getting into the online stuff. And I have known about students who would spend thirty hours a week gambling online, not doing their work, or doing shoddy work, and then coming to class with bags under their eyes at 10 in the morning. They'd been in this kind of tunnel vision of doing this with no one around to say, 'Hey, man, stop this; you've gone too far.' "

Serendipitously, the reason for such conduct, scientists think, also arises from our neural circuitry.

"There is neurological research about online gambling, that it does involve those area of the brain that account for our addictions to alcohol, to drugs, to sex, whatever," Braver explained. "Solitary online gambling is worse that playing with your buddy at a table, where he can say, 'Hey, knock it off, you've lost everything that you'd gained.' "

EDGE ventures to suggest that the moral of the story is that the question of whether we live beyond our bodies is less important than the question of how well we live while we're in those bodies.

"Yes, right -- exactly," Braver said. "Those people who want to become martyrs because of whatever religious fundamental beliefs have been propagandized -- 'Throw away this life, because there's something better beyond' -- are banking a lot on something beyond the veil."

Braver didn't want to disclose too much about his next project, other than to give a title and a general idea of the plot.

"I don't want to say too much about it because I'm only a hundred pages into it, and I'm not sure how it's going to end," Braver told EDGE. "But how do you follow proving God and Heaven?

"The working title is 'Primitive,' " he revealed. "I kind of like that!" The book is more of an adventure-style thriller than another entry in the bio-medical genre, though, Braver said, "At the end there's going to be some kind of surprise twist that relates to biomedical reasons for why people are doing what they're doing in the book."

One of the most understandable motives -- and a central part of all of his books -- is the human need for family: To create familial bonds, to protect them, and to seek them out if they're broken or missing.

"Almost all of my novels involve a search for Father," Braver said. "My father left when I was four and a half years old, so that's a sub-theme in several of the books.

"This new one, 'Primitive,' is about a guy who's caught up in the digital world. He's in his mid-thirties, he does Facebook and Twitter and spends all this time on message boards. He lives in Cambridge, he has some kind of high-powered technical job and a science background.

"He wants to drop all of that, go back to his parents' homeland -- they came from a remote island in the Aegean -- and he wants to go find his roots and get primitive. He loves the simplicity of this kind of island oasis."

The source of the protagonist's midlife crisis (or what sounds like a midlife crisis) is his father's death, and a final wish that sends him on his quest. But while it might be easy to sympathize with a man trying to connect as best he can with a father he never knew, it's also the case -- as Braver fans will know by now -- that getting what you think you want can have dire consequences.

"All of my books have the same caveat: Watch out what you wish for!" Braver teased. "He goes to this primitive island and it gets more primitive than he bargained for -- he gets caught up in some rituals that include some exotic stuff. He finds that he's trapped: How does he get out of this?"

EDGE recalls that Braver's first novel, "Atlantis Fire" (written as Gary Goshgarian), was set in the Greek islands. Is Braver coming full circle?

"I guess I am reminiscing a bit, but I hope it doesn't close the circle on my career," Braver laughed. "I hope I have a few more novels in me!

"I set the novel in Greece because there are no islands in Armenia, which is landlocked. I wanted a really remote, water-locked place," Braver added. "I went to Greece before I wrote 'Atlantis Fire,' and I think Greece is one of the most wonderful places on Earth, so I decided to go back to that.

"This is going to be the one book where there are no Armenian characters,' Braver acknowledged. "It'll be mostly Greek people who are the only ones who can get on this island. They have a special visa, and they are part of the bloodline."

It sounds -- how else to put this? -- thrilling.

"Tunnel Vision," published by Tor/Forge Books, is on sale now.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.