Grandmother’s stories don’t have endings or beginnings, they’re just middles piled one after another . . . (8♣)
I've been fascinated by the unbound deck-book since childhood, when my father showed me the script of a play he had worked on in the 1960s. Each scene, as well as musical cues, was hand-written onto long Rolodex cards that would get shuffled before every performance and performed in the order they came out in.
The order in which the pages of a story occur, the sureness of design choices made, was so inherent to the way an individual artist remained present—I chose for you to experience this in that way—that the 20th century avant-garde is abundant with works of chance and collaboration in defiance: action paintings, guerrilla public performance art, collaborations, cut-up collage novels, I Ching music compositions, and, yes, Rolodex plays. They tried to undermine our reverence for lonely genius authorship by subordinating the artist to a higher power: maybe chance, or Utopia, sub-consciousness, collective consciousness, the will of the audience. And we are still, in the 21st century, not done with questioning the rules of how to actively read, look, and listen.
These experiments, whether they arise out of the death drive of our egos or some anxious compulsive escapism, have cross-pollinated beautifully with contemporary technology and genres. Interactivity is the idol behind the present renaissance of independently produced artist games and game-like approaches to other media. Now the audience is eager to get involved in
their own amusement. It is no longer avant-garde to question the authority of the author, and art is a lot more fun for it.
In this spirit, then, Jedediah Berry's The Family Arcana is a book and also a deck of playing cards. It contains the fifty-two standard cards you might find in a poker deck, each with a self-contained vignette, plus several additional cards of no suit or rank, two of which serve as loose front and back covers of the book, and one pure picture card. The spare use of illustration in the book shines in the watery, lucid-dream work of Eben Kling. Though I received a proof version of the deck, the official release scheduled for September 2015 promises a premium-quality deck produced by the same manufacturer as the ubiquitous Bicycle cards, as well as expansion packs of more art, recipes, horoscopes, and "curiosities" from the world of the story.
We don’t know whether we planted or only dreamed a dream of seed and soil. But we’ll know which it was, later this season, when we see what manner of crops come up. (5♦)
Taken individually, the vignettes stand alone as rural Gothic peepholes into maybe-mid-20th-century, maybe-upstate New York, into an extended family caught up in a private passion and at constant odds with the nameless bank threatening foreclosure on their home. Berry approaches his card-book with an understanding and deep love for the experimental novel, as evidenced by his round-up Five Books That Are Also Labyrinths on Tor.com. And while the historical comparison to these sorts of Modernist works, highly concerned with the form of the story and the form of the book, seem to place The Family Arcana into a niche literary lineage, I personally felt the style was firmly contemporary-retro: Berry is clearly also influenced by games, micro-content social media, and kitsch occult aesthetics; this is a deck of playing cards for fans of the Night Vale Twitter and Edward Gorey's Fantod Pack tarot. The work would blend seamlessly into the Regional Gothic meme, which trended on Tumblr in early 2015.
Our uncle, the one with breath like pickled eggs, shuffles the cards and lays them out before us. “What’s each of them mean?” he says. The oldest among us refuse to play, but the younger ones make guesses. The Queen of Harrow is good luck. The Seven of Milkweed is heart attack. The Two of Elephants is a faulty disguise. The Knave of Apples is a day like folded paper. (J♣)
The fact that this book of haunting and lovely vignettes comes as a fully functional deck of playing cards specifically—as opposed to another type of cards or simply being without binding—made me question how best to read/play it. Trying to absorb the mood and imagery of The Family Arcana while playing a standard card game of any reasonable pace negates achieving either goal, so I sat down for Solitaire and let the resulting piles determine the order in which I read the book through for the first time. I could as easily have sorted by suit or 52 Pickup, but I think the precise choice of game reveals as much about the personality of the reader/player as it does rearrange the story. Solitaire produced four miniature stories within the story. The stacks of alternating red and black cards which finished my game read as, first, an intense character study of a father, and then of his marriage, then an anxious kind of chronicle of the bank people, and finally an inconsistent index of children: their number, status, trauma, schemes. Each micro-moment crept into the others, but a reshuffling and replay made the father a background character and the bank a mere comical motif.
Whatever approach you take, if you're looking for high fantasy adventure or even a linear plot, The Family Arcana is not for you. But it might be if you're someone who above all loves language, and the tight pairing of surreal irreverence with sentimentality; who has fantasized about a Kentucky Route Zero tabletop spin-off, set along 2 West through the lost towns of rural Massachusetts.
Throughout, Eben Kling's artwork is superb. Along with the cover, on one card we see a formal seated portrait of some fraction of this infinitely mutable family; on another, a joker, a Goliath bank man with a face like a red bliss latke; on the second joker, a cowering little boy in Sunday best submerged in brine and sealed into a pickle jar. Kling's vivid style compliments the tone of the text well, and the few issues I had with it are complicated.
On the one hand, his work is so effective on the few cards it decorates that I sorely wished the royals were illustrated by him as well. On the review copy I received, the traditional graphic of jacks, queens, and kings lightly underlay the text of those cards. The royals leave fertile room for reinterpretation in their conjoined-twin busts, the one-eyed jack, the apparently suicidal king of hearts. On the other hand, prioritizing art for these cards might come at the expense of Berry's prose, and I wish it were possible to have it both ways.
The second issue I had with the art was simply that, in portraying the family at all, it fixes them as white people. Since the story itself constantly contradicts and reinvents the family, the text would seem to invite the reader/player to come to their own conclusions about their identities. On the other hand, the portrayals are beautiful, haunting illustrations of characters more concept than person, and this choice may have been more deliberate than I'm assuming.
Indeed, the mania of the The Family Arcana mythos will extend to expansion packs (more story and illustrations, and recipes) as well as an unconventional audiobook edition and a soundtrack. So perhaps, the denser this world becomes, the more specific and also more changeable its inhabitants, which seems to be precisely the kind of mischief and heart that Berry intends.
K. Tait Jarboe is a sound designer and writer living in Boston. Their fiction can be found in Wyvern Lit, UNBUILD Walls Literary Journal, The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline, and forthcoming in Split Lip Magazine. They're currently writing a text adventure game about abstract expressionism for Choice of Games LLC. They have a Twitter and a website.