Weird Rec: The Family Arcana by Jedediah Berry

To honor the formal constraints of Jedediah Berry’s The Family Arcana, a story told in playing cards, this review is composed in 52 parts.

For those interested in a more experimental read, this PowerPoint presentation allows readers to play 52-card pickup with this review by randomly selecting which segment they read next. (Macros must be enabled.)

  1. Jedediah Berry’s The Family Arcana is a gothic family drama told in playing cards, revealing the strange life of a sprawling, insular extended family one card at a time.
  2. In this family, siblings may be baked into pies or pickled.
  3. Some members arrive having been lured away from five-and-dime stores, while others disappear, never to return.
  4. Mother sleepwalks, father strokes his moustache.
  5. Uncles may be imposters, and aunts are not to be trusted, either.
  6. The most untrustworthy  figures in this story, though, are the mysterious “bank people,” who are trying by whatever means possible to wrest the house from the family’s grip.
  7. The bank people seem to have limited success, however, as they’re much more likely to wind up entombed in a wall or buried in an unmarked grave out back.
  8. In this respect, the bank people add a curious, contradictory pressure to the story.
  9. Though the danger of losing the house is very real and immediate–it’s suggested the family will die if they are forced to leave–this threat is also strangely defused by the ease with which the family seem to thwart the bank people’s attempts.
  10. Though this is not a world without consequences, the repercussions of an action are never quite what you might expect.
  11. In another story, it might be easy to fault a lack of tension, or a sense of indirect cause-and-effect, but in The Family Arcana, atmosphere is paramount to plot.
  12. There’s so much to love about the rich world this family inhabits, from one sister’s prophetic dances to the dead whispering secrets from within the walls.
  13. This is a realm I’d love to explore further, though as an interloper, I have to admit I might not make it out alive.
  14. Berry’s vignettes are little masterpieces, as well, executing maneuvers that are by turns tender and surreal.
  15. In the course of a paragraph, he’ll reel from the commonplace to the fantastic, slipping in unsettling touches with the lightest of hands.
  16. Lists are one of Berry’s most effective tools, allowing him to slide in surprising details here and there while remaining grounded in the quotidian rhythms of daily family life.
  17. Though Berry is deft at building the nuance of these vignettes, this is not to suggest that The Family Arcana is at all tentative in its strangeness.
  18. This story does not just relish in the odd and unexpected, it takes it for granted.
  19. Indeed, familiarity plays a significant part in the strangeness of The Family Arcana.
  20. These are characters who know each other so well they don’t have to explain, and their intimacy leaves the reader, inevitably an outsider, deliciously at a loss.
  21. Their off-handed manner, the acceptance with which they mention their outlandish family practices, creates a pleasant confusion, unsettling the world of the story even more.
  22. The family’s house is a place where everything strange is accepted and allowed to thrive.
  23. Marvelously, the same is true of Berry’s story, which opens up and grows richer the weirder it gets.
  24. However, it does seem at times that the story is more successful as a set of atmospheric vignettes than it is as a conventional narrative or a formal experiment.
  25. When I first read The Family Arcana, I read it straight through as it’d been packed in the box.
  26. Though the story in this order hardly had what might be called a climax or a resolution, it had (it seemed to me) a pleasant momentum, slowly introducing this unusual family and turning up the heat on their strange predicament.
  27. On subsequent readings, once I’d shuffled the deck, the fragments seemed much less clearly related to one another.
  28. There might be little runs of meaning reading the story this way–small resonances from one card to the next–but on the whole the vignettes didn’t seem to connect in the way they had in that first reading.
  29. Overall, subsequent readings left me with the feeling that I was experiencing a sequential story out of order, rather than a story that could truly be read in any order at all.
  30. That said, I found myself fascinated by the affordances of this medium of storytelling.
  31. When I read the story by playing a game of solitaire, I was both delighted and frustrated to find parts of the piece remained inaccessable because I was playing an unwinnable hand.
  32. I’d be very curious to know what this story would be like experienced as a game of bridge, or poker, or twenty-one.
  33. (For those interested in the idea of playing the story, a supplementary pack is also available for purchase, which includes instructions for a trick-taking game, recipes, and other treasures from the world of the story.)
  34. But perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of The Family Arcana‘s formal conceit is the multiplicity of versions it presents.
  35. Like any deck of 52 playing cards, The Family Arcana has roughly 80 quintillion possible permutations.
  36. In other words, there are more ways to arrange this story than there are atoms on earth.
  37. This means that if you read a version of this story dealt from a well-shuffled deck, you’re likely reading a version that no one has ever read before, and even if everyone on earth continued to reread it for millions of years, there’s a good chance that no one would ever encounter that exact permutation again.
  38. In this respect, The Family Arcana recalls Raymond Quenau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèms, a book of ten sonnets published in strips so that each line can be recombined with every other line, producing 1014 possible poems.
  39. This is a truly staggering number of versions of this story.
  40. As wonderful as the piece is in its own right, the stunning mathematical complexity of this conceit almost eclipses anything else that could possibly be said.
  41. I couldn’t help feeling, however, that the form of The Family Arcana, though exceptional, felt a bit removed from the subject matter of the story itself.
  42. Unlike Mary Morris’s “The Cross Word,” which integrates the form of the crossword puzzle self-consciously into the telling of the story, or Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box,” which leverages its medium in the narration of the piece, the form of The Family Arcana seems to hover just slightly above its content.
  43. Though there are little glimmers of resonance (a magician neighbor, a wonderful deck of cards produced by an uncle), overall I wasn’t sure I understood what the story’s form had to do with its content, beyond its novelty.
  44. Ultimately, though I thoroughly enjoyed The Family Arcana, I don’t think I was perfectly satisfied by it.
  45. If found myself longing for a story written in this medium that truly capitalized on its form.
  46. How could a story-in-playing-cards enrich and complicate the incredible potential contained in a humble deck of 52 cards?
  47. How could this form be leveraged to explore the knowledge that any text is different every time we pick it up?
  48. What might that story look like?
  49. I don’t know, but I’m delighted by the possibility.
  50. I admire Jedediah Berry’s ambition, too.
  51. Even though I felt that The Family Arcana didn’t fully realize its promise, it’s a thoroughly delightful piece.
  52. I look forward to revisiting the world of The Family Arcana again and again, and finding something subtly different every time.

The Family Arcana is published by Ninepin Press. An audio edition is also available, featuring 52 different readers.

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2 thoughts on “Weird Rec: The Family Arcana by Jedediah Berry

  1. Pingback: Audio shuffle – Angela Warren

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