The New Arcana by John Amen and Daniel Y. Harris, NYQ Books, 2012
Reviewed by CINDY HOCHMAN
arcana [noun]: (Spirituality, New Age, Astrology & Self-help/Alternative Belief Systems) either of the two divisions (the minor arcana and the major arcana) of a pack of tarot cards.
Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, especially when the cover art boasts a glossy texture and a modern, cutting-edge feel which accurately mirrors the lush and lively text. The New Arcana both inside and out, offers a stylish, sexy, intellectually challenging, genre-jumping discourse which poses several questions: How can we live productively and contentedly in this frenetic and kinetic, high-tech world without succumbing to dementia or despair or death; how to choose between ambition and ennui; and to what extent are we willing to die for our art. Beyond the camp and hyperbole, this is a serious work that avoids pretension by not taking itself too seriously—it is, at once, a multi-faceted mockumentary, replete with sound bites, sidebars, and a deconstruction of the lexicon, and a veritable theater of the obscene and absurd. John Amen and Daniel Y. Harris have embarked on a daring and daunting collaborative effort that demands a good deal of attention, but rewards us with highly caffeinated, and often hilarious, entertainment.
Over milk, hypodermic restlessness, and mango sherbet, Sadie and Jughead
discuss their fluttering day.
Since it is de rigueur these days for reviewers to compare the work at hand to a seminal literary work of the past, please indulge me while I opine that The New Arcana, in spirit and form, lies somewhere between The Waste Land and Plato's Republic, with a bit of Alice in Wonderland,in all its satirical whimsy, tossed in. But perhaps it would be more useful to forego the comparisons and discuss why this book is unique, and important, in its own right.
My ennui shall be my tabernacle,
It shall lead me through rapacious waters
past sirens and reefs, deliver me
safe to Ithaca.
The cadence, throughout, is in striking alignment with the content. There is a vibrant breathlessness to the prose, which perfectly captures the wild fluctuations and hysteria of our daily lives. At heart, Messrs. Amen and Harris are poets and, as such, the dialogue is peppered with lyrically appealing, spiritually astute, imagery:
A hot wind whips across the eternal landscape;
archaic symbols are sold at auction north of Disneyland
to diehard antique-mongers and melancholy pedants . . .
Then, a flipped coin fell from the blue sky like an afterthought.
Will you stick round to hear the details—how it landed—
as they are cast and analyzed by the aging excommunicants?
Although there is no overt attempt to derange the senses, á la surrealism, the authors do play havoc with the reader’s notions of what, exactly, is vital to the zeitgeist. It is no accident that the book begins, “Our Father who art.” While, at first glance, there is a seemingly religious significance, it soon becomes clear that the real focus is on the word “art,” and how we define it. All roads lead to the Muse, who manifests in many colorful variations: high art co-exists peacefully with low art (i.e., discussing Descartes while stuffing money in a g-string); and the abandonment (or, even, annihilation) of the creative force altogether. Of course, there is also a healthy undercurrent of fetishist sex, if you are so inclined.
There are five discrete chapters, each one setting up a dichotomy (or maybe an existential crisis, depending on your interpretation). The first dramatic presentation, drawing on pop culture and wild imagination, features Jughead Jones (wasn’t he a character in the Archie comics?) and Sadie Shorthand (isn't our language these days a sort of texted shorthand?)
Alas, I am being bombarded by wings, black embers,
velcro, and coupons, Sadie thinks, removing her 4-inch
heels, hanging the riding crop on the smoke-yellow wall . . .
Too late, between crumbs of Cartesian hypochondria,
saturated fat of dictum, logic, syllogism . . .
The high-spirited debate focuses on the value of math versus theology, which can also be translated as: abstract versus concrete; spiritual versus physical; and, within the context of literature, experimental versus linear. The authors are decidedly on the side of free expression.
And, oh, did I mention there is sex?
It seems fitting that the sexual deviance of choice is adults masquerading as babies. But once you get past the symbolism of dirty diapers and breast-pumped milk, you can see this regression as a way to mitigate the stress of overwhelming stimuli that living in the real word entails, or, quite simply, a desire to shirk responsibility:
. . . Jug and Sadie confabbing in the milk-white kitchen,
pacifiers and Lego kits
strewn about the floor, bills unpaid . . .
In Chapter 2, we are treated to a mock trial in a kangaroo court, wherein the competency of one Constance Carbuncle is to be determined. The real question, though, is whether madness is a necessary by-product of a think-outside-the-box worldview.
to a few more neurons:
warrior cells and regenerative dendrites
were insufficient to counter her family’s wacked legacy.
But who are the final arbiters of Constance’s fate? Justin Nurm, Constance's lover, “once flew into a rage when a hotdog vendor neglected to offer him mustard for his salty pretzel” and has “a penchant for eating lightly sautéed worms.” Dr. Yistrum Lee “challenged the dust mites to a vocabulary duel” and “once stuck a pencil up his right nostril while tweezing his left eyebrow.” Lead Advocate Hortense rehearses his closing statement in front of an albino doll. Let the judges themselves be judged!
“The actors . . . sit with their backs to the audience. They speak
neither to each other nor to the audience, as if they are completely
disassociated from both themselves and their immediate surroundings.”
By the next chapter, and as depicted in the above stage directions of this play-within-a-play, the characters have descended into apathy and disconnectedness. In this regard, perhaps I should not have been so hasty in discounting comparisons — there really are elements of The Waste Land here, although the sprinkling of foreign phrases is in French (and sometimes Hebrew) rather than Latin. T.S. Eliot staged a séance; Harris and Amen reference the tarot deck—both are intrinsically linked to the concepts of sex and death. The torrent of non-sequiturs denotes a similar decline in engagement, both due to untenable outside forces. But while The Waste Land, in each successive stanza, plunges further into chaos, The New Arcana does not, in the end, give in to pessimism, even despite the fact that most of the young practitioners of the new art have drawn the death card. The last chapter culminates in dialectical verse, laid out symmetrically on the page, which attempt to restore order and reconcile all previous disparities.
The New Arcana is not for the lazy reader. But for those who believe that contemporary American writing ought to push as many envelopes as possible, this book is not only worth the intellectual investment—it’s a really enjoyable ride!
The New Arcanaby John Amen and Daniel Y. Harris, NYQ Books 2012, ISBN:978-1-935520-59-7
Cindy Hochman is the editor-in-chief of the online journal First Literary Review-East. Her poems are upcoming in the New York Quarterly, CLWN WR, and the Cancer Project Anthology. Her latest chapbook is The Carcinogenic Bride.
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