“Icarus is a treasure, an epic tale—beautifully written—of the expansion and conquest of one’s own mind told with humor and humility that is impossible to put down. As Alper skillfully guides the reader through this universal, yet deeply personal quest for ultimate meaning, he meets his biggest fears—simultaneously forcing us to meet ours. Icarus is an inspiring and highly entertaining story, not just a book really but an experience with astonishing transformative power. Any teenager, adult, atheist or spiritual seeker who opens this book will not be the same person at closing it—guaranteed.” —J. Perch, MD, Princeton University Medical Center
“Bold, Innovative, Triumphant! Siddhartha meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A must read for anyone who’s questioned the meaning of existence.” —A. Sadwin, MD, Chief of Neuropsychiatry, Graduate Hospital, University of Pennsylvania
“A philosophical rollercoaster ride that will make you think, laugh out loud and cry all in one sitting. In a word, Brilliant!” —S. Harney, Ph.D.,Baruch College
Review by: Jason Frye
Published in the July / August 2013 Edition of “The Humanist” Magazine
“Picture a precocious child whose tireless energy and boundless curiosity perennially lead his mother and father to the point of exhaustion. He’s the kind that questions the exercise of pre-meal prayer: “What is the point? It certainly didn’t make the food taste better.” One evening the boy asks his father:
“So everything there is, God made?”
“Why? Why did He make the universe?”
“Jesus Christ, Matthew! I don’t know. Why does anyone do anything?”
“Because they want to?”
“Exactly! That’s why God made the universe. Because He wanted to.”
“Why? Was it fun for Him?”
At this point the father capitulates: “I’m exhausted. He’s got a question for everything. It’s like fighting a hydra. You answer one question, and two new ones take its place.”
The boy is a young Matthew Alper. Alper, of course, is the author of the highly acclaimed 1996 book, “The God Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God,” a rather ambitious project to explore religion as a natural phenomenon. Some sixteen years later, Alper has returned with Icarus of Brooklyn, a personal narrative that’s a prequel of sorts to The God Part.
Alper’s writing style throughout “Icarus” is conversational yet complex. While “God Part” allowed the educator in him to present complicated issues in a comprehensible manner, Icarus is more raw, with a compelling and organic authenticity–vulnerable but not self-indulgent–from a man who has truly lived. In it Alper exudes that abrupt yet jovial, no-bullshit affect that is unmistakably New York. In terms of their relation to other contemporary works in the atheist genre, both of Alper’s books refreshingly avoid admonishing or bullying their subjects.
When The God Part of the Brain explores the nature of religion, it does so with maturity, sincerity, and an intellectual integrity sorely needed as a role model for today’s nonbelievers. As a textbook on religion as a natural phenomenon, Alper’s book is a matter of fact investigation. Yet there is a really interesting story behind this author. Alper’s second book draws back the curtain.
Through Icarus’ compelling personal narrative, Alper puts an endearing and identifiable face upon the destruction of the ego, the search for spiritual truth, and the reestablishment of the self. From a toddler discovering self-conscious awareness to a child learning about the concepts of death, spirit, God and infinity, Alper sets off on a personal journey. Through the course of events, Alper tries to find his place in an ever-expanding universe, tests his boundaries of experience, and eventually loses all attachment to any sense of self-identity. He takes us on a voyage through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in which his struggle to find God nearly kills him.
As an adolescent Alper experimented with marijuana and psychedelics. The rebellious teen took blotter hits and a lesson from a shamanic Coney Island acid dealer named Ray-Ray. His drug use extended into his short time at Vassar College, and his existential crisis deepened after his expulsion. While vacationing with his parents during this time, Alper was bitten by a raccoon. The following exchange ensues back in the cabin:
“Well I took LSD, and …”
“You took WHAT!!!”
My father shouted.
“I took LSD, and I’m pretty sure what I’m feeling now has something to do with it. Either that or I have rabies.”
“LSD or rabies? What are you saying?”
Alper masterfully layers a great story that ambushes you at the right moment with biting humor. He asserts that, like the namesake of the book, he flew a little too high in his quest for answers. Yet, unlike Ovid’s character, he lived to tell about it.
Icarus also ranges into more serious emotional depth (including a failed suicide attempt). In his pain, disillusionment, and confusion Alper places a human face on an existential journey and calls us to engage more deeply with him as our philosophical tour guide. In short, Icarus soars.
We need more thinkers like Matthew Alper. We need to cultivate less sloppy thinking, and more honesty and dignity. The byproduct of Alper’s work may be a corrosion of the foundations of supernaturalism and superstition, but his goal is far superior: that of learning, understanding, and truth.”
Jason Frye is the LGBTQ Humanist Council Coordinator for the American Humanist Association, a humanist celebrant, president of the Humanist Association of San Diego, and is currently working toward a master’s degree in political science and public policy at San Diego State University.