The American Tarot

In his strange and gorgeous novel Amnesiascope, Steve Erickson proposes an American Tarot: in place of the Magician and the Fool, Death and the Lovers, Erickson offers “the Snakecharmer and the Boatman and the Moll and the Slave, the Witch and the Bounty Hunter and the Black Lieutenant and the Salem Mistress. . . the Blind Hitchhiker and the Ripped-Dress Debutante.” Erickson’s writing is habitually brilliant, but this idea — practically a throwaway, an aside in the novel’s hallucinatory and frightening beauty — is an idea I can’t let go. Had I the inventive skill and the time and the artistic ability, I’d create an entire deck, Major and Minor Arcana, of the American Tarot: The Pop Singer, The Gangster, The Salesman, The Skyscraper, The Student, Hollywood, The Welfare Mother, The Miner, The Senate Commission, The Minister, The Corner Store, The Late-Night DJ — what are our other icons? For the power of the Tarot lies in its archetypal echoes, the way these figures represent constellations of cultural, political, economic identities, activities, phenomena: they seem powerfully unique, but they stand for entire classes, arrays, matrices of possibility. The Black Lieutenant carries a hundred thousand narratives of oppression and ascent, structural hegemony and individual agency, romance and loss; so, too, do all the other Arcana all compress their own multiplicities of narratives. The Arcana seem to me to be something like classes, in that they embody the stories people tell about themselves. The stories we tell about ourselves.

We see reflections of them embodied everywhere. We see the Arcana perverted, in their stunted carnival form, in the masks of Wealth Bondage: Candidia Cruikshanks as The Chariot; Dr. Chadwallah, The Hermit; Chastity Powers, The Star; Dick Minim, The Hanged Man. We see other stories, as well.

We see the way they’re drawn and dealt, seventh shuffle and seventh cut, diamonds and hearts, spades, the club, the way they fall, the quadrifold crux, nexus, birth, school, work, death, the wings to either side, fortune, soaring to the possible wax-burn and smoke-trail plummet, Icarine, but to soar and hit it, the gold-paved street, the crystal halls and mahogany offices, the frosted glass through which to gaze, the sunny skies and shaded glades, fragmented, splintered like a stained-glass window, smashed save for the larger lies, super-sized, in the elliptical detail and the alternative history, the myth of celebrity and the lies of the scandal sheet made true.

We lie to tell the truths about our culture once removed from itself, our borrowed myths, our inflations and elisions. We see American culture in need of a Madonna the size of Paul Bunyan, a class mythology that is the self-conscious accumulation of simulacra, the sound bite as tall tale, fame and desire making even the false minutiae into a medium of exchange.

We see Harriet Tubman hanged in her wedding dress on a rural Maryland farm, hanged by one ankle, the trickle of blood from the rope’s abrasion, the scrape of hemp, down her bare leg, for her and the blessing of God, her features hidden by her fallen gown, and the shaming grace of her bare brown body, of the Klan, of the terrible science of blood and fire and fear.

We see John Luther Jones, one hand on the brake and the other on the horn, the final run from Memphis to Canton, the twisted wreckage of Cleveland steel, like metal could bend that way, could and can and does, the hunger of the boiler’s fire and a hopper full of coal, far away from the equivocal power of the city, the crowd and buzz and murmur, the great hive, the empty place, the rails’ whine and clack and rumble, the broken bit in the engine’s teeth, unbridled, the drawing-together of space, the one man who knew Leland Stanford’s golden spike had been inscribed with his name and the roar of a hundred thousand trains, who knew the sudden hush and collective held breath as a nation waited on Casey’s last ride.

We see old Joe laughing over his whiskey, his caved-in face, eight million before he was twenty-nine and the unforgivable stain of placating fascism, even Gloria couldn’t take that, Honey Fitz never forgave it, fired after two years as ambassador and he told his sons to take it as far as they could, to the limit, the Kennedy end, the cask and the casket, another end in the movement of metal, twist and jump and crumple, all our eyes, all their lives, alcohol and lead, stainless steel and fiberglass, and always, somewhere, fire.

We see the girl, eight years old and tiring of the suburban Kansas schoolbus ride, riding through Dred Scott’s territory, her angry father and the National Guard, the full magazine of an M1 Garand, Ike’s stroke and the slump of all deliberate speed leaving him like that, drooling, gibbering to President Dick in the anteroom of the D.C. Army hospital, one side of the face paralyzed in that place where the wheels on the bus go round, when all the old words for soul meant breath, psyche, spiritus, anima, oxygen to feed it, the end of the white city, energy, undirected, becomes hysterical, drives activity and empties itself into the future skyscrapers of Linda Brown’s Topeka.

We see the young officer with his blood-streaked chin, the flap of gristle from a child’s wrist still hanging from that front-teeth gap, the high-school quarterback hero, the one who knew like Kronos that when the barbarians came at least they were a kind of solution, the one who was both the father and the sacrifice when God said to Abraham kill me a son, his hair too short and still stinking of naphtha and the bright black and orange bloom of a treeline bombed, Lieutenant Calley hanged by the neck on the Capitol’s steps, burned, the flames beyond the cherry blossoms.

We see Paula Coughlin at the Gauntlet, the fallen face of the high-rise hotel, girders burnt and bent and the plane’s final fatal approach, the skyscraper superstructure, furious furtive gropes on the flat plane of the flight deck and steel beach, a slammed coupling against inch-thick plate glass on the thirty-first floor and the city spinning below, the blaze of its lights, high and horny and horrified, drunk on Molotov cocktails, the world in her left hand and the sword in her right, blindfolded, and changed for scales and a last cigarette.

We see, now, the trumps laid out, the components and futures of the stories we tell about ourselves: marketing analysis, compression ratios for spark and flame, four-barrel Halley carbs, Remington .410s, green tea, honey-colored suntans, superchargers, nocturnal emissions, fluorocarbons, teenage lovers, antioxidants, the NFL draft, instant coffee, tattoos, super-high octane, stain-resistant Orlon, Saran wrap, breast implants, Tupperware, Ritalin, A-400, stunt doubles, fast food, flame-grilled burgers, second mortgages, police auctions, police actions, friendly fire, eight-gauge and nine-grain, the wonderful world of Disney, full copper jacket, black bras, burning sensations, waxy yellow buildup, accounts receivable, disposable syringes, hilarious home videos, phone sex hotlines, new fat burners, Teflon politicians, dime-a-minute friends and family, 401(k)s, serial killers, fast-acting laxatives, lingerie parties, Jenny Craig, lactose intolerance, superheroes, special effects, lite beer, free-range chickens, family values, reaction formation, tie-dyes, duct work, crack, Atkins diets, Hanna-Barbera, anal sex, lapdogs, medicated ointment, junk bonds, hostile takeovers, hot Hollywood gossip, chopped and channeled 442 V-8s, open pit B-B-Q, cum-shots, Pilates, liposuction, tasers, pedophilia, poison tongue, poison mind, poison life, poison air; we see all this, the rising hum and hubbub and ignitory arcing spark of chance across the matrix of the American Arcana.

The American Tarot

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