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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Weird Book Club: Duplex, Kathryn Davis

Read Weird’s back, and we’ve got our next Weird Book Club pick!

In case you missed our inaugural Weird Book Club earlier this year, here’s how it works: every other month, we’ll announce a new title for the Weird Book Club. We’ll read the book together, and at the end of the following month, we’ll check in with discussions, reviews, and the like.

Our September-October Weird Book Club pick is Duplex by Kathryn Davis!  Join us Sunday, October 16 @ 1 PM EDT to discuss Duplex!

 

Weird Rec: “Ancient Ham” by Meredith Alling

I may not want Meredith Alling to cook dinner for me anytime soon, but she can write me a story any day.

In “Ancient Ham,” a delectable morsel of flash fiction, Alling tells the story of a magic ham with predictive powers.  “Once a year,” we’re told, “the Ancient Ham crawls out of the sewer to sit on a curb and answer questions.”

People flock to the Ancient Ham to ask it yes or no questions.  How, you might ask, does a ham answer such questions?  Well, one simply pokes the Ancient Ham with sewing needles laden with offerings, and then the Ancient Ham bobs left for no, right for yes.

“Ancient Ham” is especially brilliant in the way the story’s heart emerges in the last few lines.  I won’t spoil the ending for you, but just know that it has me bobbing to the right, just like the Ancient Ham.

Yes, you should read this story; yes, this writer is fab; yes, I am salivating over the prospect of Alling’s forthcoming debut collection.

Click here to read “Ancient Ham,” published on Tin House‘s blog, The Open Bar.

April Weird Book Club Begins at 1 PM EDT!

Hi everyone! Don’t forget our April Weird Book Club discussion of Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours begins in a little over half an hour, at 1 PM EDT over on Goodreads.

Come prepared to discuss with your thoughts, questions, and critiques.  We can’t wait to hear what you think!

Don’t have a Goodreads account? You can respond in the comments section of this post, or participate on Twitter by using the hashtag #weirdbookclub.

See you there!

Are You Ready for April’s Weird Book Club?

To get you in the mood for this weekend’s Weird Book Club discussion about Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, here are some relevant odds and ends for your enjoyment.

In her review of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours in the New York Times, Laura Van Den Berg calls the collection “a cabinet of wonders,” and says, “Oyeyemi so expertly melds the everyday, the fantastic, and the eternal, we have to ask if the line between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ is murkier than we imagined — or to what extent a line exists at all.”

Nor is it just the world on the page that seems to be half-enchanted. In this interview in Vice, Oyeyemi’s comments suggest that the small strangenesses of ordinary life make the barrier between the real and the unreal seem just as permeable as it is in fairy tales. Lines remembered from novels can disappear on rereading and objects like keys (which crop up again and again as symbols in What Is Not Yours . . .)  are only “supposedly inanimate.”

In the same interview, Oyeyemi also talks about the politics of representation, as well as her writing process, admitting, “I think slowly, but I write fast.” If you’d like to get more of a sense of Oyeyemi’s sensibilities as a writer and reviser, this writing playlist she put together for Granta is well worth checking out.

Hopefully this has got you excited about talking about What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. Be sure to join us on goodreads this Saturday at 1 PM EDT for our inaugural Weird Book Club discussion!

Weird Rec: “The Merm Prob,” Kelly Magee

The merms weren’t dumb, just feral. Wild things whose wild had disappeared. Or overheated. In our good moments, we felt bad for them. We imagined them imagining their watery homes, their windswept rocks, their transfixed sailors. We wondered if they missed weightlessness. If there were things you could only think at certain depths.

— Kelly Magee, “The Merm Prob”

I picked up a copy of Gulf Coast’s Archive Issue last week and, let me tell you, it’s good. The issue features the winners of the 2015 Barthelme Prize, judged by Steve Almond,  essays by Traci Brimhall and Andrea Lee, a selection of poetry curated by Eduardo Corral, and stories by Leslie Jamison and Stuart Dybek. So basically, you can’t go wrong. But one piece that stands out to me in this uniformly stellar issue is Kelly Magee’s “The Merm Prob,” a brutal, funny story about what happens when a peaceful seaside community is overrun by a group of vicious, sex-crazed mermaids.

If that description alone isn’t enough to make you want to pick up a copy right now, there’s more. Not only are Magee’s mermaids a welcome antidote to the familiar image of the seductive siren, they also raise some valid questions about the logistics of mermaidery. If you keep a mermaid in your swimming pool, will it wreak havoc on your filtration system? How do mermaids reproduce, exactly? This is a story that commits to its premise and explores those consequences in sharp, concrete detail.

Magee handles the cascading ramifications of the mermaids’ arrival with wit and careful language. The voice of her collective narrators (the women of the town besieged by the mermaids) is reminiscent of George Saunders’ deadpan, jargony narrators, and much of the humor of the story, as is often the case in Saunders’ work, comes from the protagonists’ understated telling of the bizarre events at hand.  But the matter-of-factness of Magee’s narrators belies  a subtle longing they have trouble expressing, and uncovers a seam of unreliability that runs through the story. This, I think, is what endears me to “The Merm Prob” most. It’s a story that surprises not only the reader, but even the characters telling it.

Immersed in the Fiction of the Museum of Jurassic Technology

To finish out our weekend at AWP, we make our way to the museum, which is in Culver City around the corner from a surprisingly unassuming, corporate-looking Sony Studios lot.  We leave the sun and heat and enter the eye-straining gloom of the museum.  In the dark I find myself bowing down to read the peeling placards—pale text on black backgrounds—leaning so close my eyes hurt.  The first exhibit I see is a glass box bearing a sign that reads, “Exhibit out of order.”

In the display case box are five glass dishes, each filled with a powder and labeled with numbers 1 through 5.  Beneath the box is a legend: each number, it seems, correlates to a word.

One of the five glass dishes is smashed, glass dish number 5.

Lean closer, and you’ll see that number 5 is labeled “Reason.”

And so begins the immersive experience that is the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a world filled with the inescapable allure of the illogical and haunting sounds that pull you from room to room.

In a way, the Museum draws our attention to the experience of living in fiction.  Is the exhibit with glass dishes truly out of order, or am I meant to interpret it as a symbol, a warning, that this is a place where reason is to be left at the door?

The magic of the Museum of Jurassic Technology is that its exhibits function like good fiction, perhaps even especially like good fairytales or well-done flash fiction.  The placards present self-contained worlds; at the same time, we are invited to follow the narrative as it spirals beyond the displays in front of us, to consider implications and the logic of what remains unsaid.

Take, for instance, another display: in this glass case, there is a model bed, tiny and disheveled.

The caption reads: “A woman after childbirth is the most dangerous thing on earth.  All sorts of uncanny things are around the mother and infant, and if she goes to a river to wash, the fish will go away.”

I found myself agreeing with this caption: yes, this conveys a certain truth.  A woman after childbirth is a strange and dangerous thing; in giving birth, she has, as Maggie Nelson says, “touched death along the way.”  It is no wonder that a person who has experienced such an uncanny thing could be said to drive the fish away.

The caption’s turn to the river is an unexpected turn, but one that feels natural.  It’s an example of Kate Bernheimer’s “just-so stories”: because of the way the description is written, we as readers believe (we want to believe) that the events of the caption happened exactly as we’ve been told.  That is, a woman has a child; a woman after childbirth is an uncanny thing; the uncanny woman thing drives the fish away.

Beyond telling a fiction (or is it?) in which we might recognize an aspect of human experience, this caption calls beyond itself and invites the visitor to contemplate the exhibit’s implications.  For instance, for how long will a new mother keep the fish away?  Is our uncanny woman supernatural in nature, able to pollute the river and banish the fish forever?  Is it possible that the woman is simply a particularly aggressive bather, and her splashing scared the fish away?

Put aside the caption; consider again the stark display of the empty, unmade bed.  Now we’re left wondering: for how long has our uncanny mother been gone?