BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

 

Please…just don’t.

 

I don’t take any joy in writing a negative review, but… well…You know how people say there is no “good” or “bad” art, only art that elicits a reaction? Well, this book certainly elicited a reaction from me—an emotional reaction. And I’mma gonna tell you about it in not the most flattering terms. Brace yourself.

 

After reading this book, I sort of think that I can understand how serious and legitimate earth-centered wiccan practitioners like Starhawk or Phyllis Curott must feel every time they are confronted with yet another movie like the abhorrent 2013 action-adventure movie Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters… It’s kind of offensive. Not kind of…it is offensive. Why is it that witches always have to be portrayed in the movies as demon-suckling, evil soul-damned monsters? Why is it that we have allowed contemporary portrayals of a peaceful and viable earth-centered religion to reflect the hag-horrific, demented women that the Medieval Catholic Church vilified them as?

 

Images of witches from the movie Hansel & Gretel: Witchhunters

Images of witch characters from the movie Hansel & Gretel: Witchhunters. …Oh, perfect…because that’s what I always picture witches looking like…NOT.

 

Movie poster from Hansel & Gretel: Witchhunters

…And, of course, witches always have to be grotesquely murdered because they’re evil. Are we still living in the Dark Ages??!

 

Similarly, author Erika Swyler has taken every disingenuous and offensive cultural urban myth about tarot card reading, and conveniently emphasized them all wrapped-up in one tidy chick-lit novel. By the time I reached half-way through this book, I was completely ready to abandon it, and the only reason that I didn’t was because (1.) I felt like I ought to read it for the very review purposes for which you are now allowing my criticism to tumble across your eyeballs, and (2.) I—for some reason—held out hope that the author might turn the whole scenario around and redeem herself by the end of the book.

 

…She did not.

 

The book is basically divided into two separate stories, switching back and forth every other chapter. The whole thing encapsulates multiple families through multiple centuries, their intertwined fates, and the havoc that is reaped among them all through several generations by a ridiculous CURSE that has been unintentionally abused upon a self-created deck of tarot cards from the late 1700s.

 

The half of the story placed in the earlier time period is actually fairly amusing, and I wished the author had taken that “half” of the book and expanded on it. There was certainly enough material to have expanded it into a larger book on its own, and the opportunity might then have presented itself for some resolution to what otherwise turned into schlock.

 

The premise of the earlier-period story is about misfits being drawn together to comprise a traveling carnival troupe, commuting the early river-wending roads of the eastern United States and the sprouting of townships and villages and cities that comprised the eastern seaboard of the post revolutionary 18th-century. There is a mute “wild boy” who can attune himself to the rhythm and heartbeat of the trees and streams and forest so acutely that he can meld into it and vanish…an abused orphan girl who accidentally kills her grandmother by the turn of the older woman’s own weapon, a girl who can hold her breath underwater for so long that she is promoted in the carnival act as a mermaid…and other troupe members who with their deformities and quirks truly comprise a menagerie in the best sense…

 

But then there’s the old Russian gypsy woman… And of course it has to be an old gypsy woman from the old country, who dresses up in veils and scarves and hoop earrings and knows every trick in the book for luring young women into paying her higher fees, and who knows how to sigh at just the right times to falsely emote pity for young girls in lovelorn distress. And it is this woman who herself becomes too attached to one of the young members, becomes jealous of his adolescent affections for another young female troupe member, and in her sadness and negligence of facing her fears and talking about them, instead absentmindedly places a curse upon a deck of cards that she leaves as a gift for the young man, and then runs away.

 

Simon Vouet (French artist, 1590-1649) The Fortune Tellers

The Fortune Tellers by Simon Vouet (French artist, 1590-1649)
Please, by all means, feel free to perpetuate grotesque stereotypes…because that’ll certainly help promote tarot legitimization and academics. (Did you get the dripping sarcasm in that remark?) Notice in this painting that the older woman is pick-pocketing the gentleman client…

 

First of all…no. I get the whole magical-realism genre and know that a certain amount of author creative license ought to be taken with a grain of salt. But magical-realism works at its prime when serendipitous events explain the mysteries of the natural world and its awe-inspiring wonders. This novel does nothing to address the “realism” segment of the equation. Instead the women of successive generations continue to kill themselves like clockwork, allowing their children and widower spouses (and adulterous lovers) to feel miserable until such time as they can “off” themselves when their turn comes up.

 

The other half of the story—the one that occurs in the present day—is chock full of truly the most unlikable characters ever to grace a printed page. Why do authors create asshole characters that simply muck through their existence as if their readers would give a shit for them at all? Does the author really think people are that awful in real life? And if they were, well…so what? I came to your book to escape the real world and all the god-awful reality television. I’m simply dumbfounded. All I know is that this author somehow created an entire slew of assholes and threw them all together in their own incestuous (literally) township of assholery-dom.

 

By page eighty-seven, Simon—nominally the book’s biggest protagonist-asshole—says, yet again: “I completely forgot. I’m so sorry.”

 

His childhood friend-slash-fuckbuddy, Alice, retorts, “You say that a lot.”

 

Um…NO SHIT SHERLOCK. And all a person can fathom is…”Wow, the author thinks she needs to tell me that she has created the world’s most verbally-challenged, lack-luster excuse for a human being.” …And then the character continues to say “he’s sorry” like EIGHT-HUNDRED-MILLION MORE TIMES THROUGHOUT THE BOOK. It’s bad enough that the book’s protagonist keeps making bad choices and can’t understand why his life is shit…but you’d think that the author might read her own writing and start making better choices herself so WE DIDN’T HATE THE MAIN CHARACTER. Somehow, though, I felt like the author thinks that we’re supposed to believe that all of Simon’s trouble is outside of his control. That his assholery-dom comes from this “curse” that’s been placed on his family.

 

…Whatever.

 

Simon’s younger sister is the shittiest, most self-centered, caustic, annoying human being ever created for a novel. She is the type of character that authors of murder mysteries contrive IN ORDER TO KILL OFF…because she’s useless. She’s more annoying to tolerate than if she wasn’t in the novel at all. The book’s author has included an entire appendices at the back of the book, in part explaining how she was so engrossed with the backstory of her own book and books in general that she taught herself how to become a bookbinder. I don’t know a single author who isn’t a complete bibliophile. SO IT IS FLABBERGASTING to read in the novel that Enola—the bratty, white-trash, sorry excuse for a younger sister—finally arrives back at the childhood home to visit her older brother that she hasn’t seen for years…and literally the first thing she does after crossing the threshold is attack an over-200-year-old antique one-of-a-kind hand-illustrated book that contains precious genealogical information…and tears its delicate pages out and shreds them. What kind of a bibliophile treats even her fictionalized books like that?! What kind of author—knowing that her readers are likely sensitive to the preciousness of books—treats her readers to the horrors of bibliomantic murder?

 

Oh, so the story then unfolds that Simon is incensed at Enola’s destruction of his personal property. (Imagine that!) He admonishes her for her recklessness, presuming that he has sufficiently expressed how much her actions have hurt him and how important the book is to him…so several days later she tears all the rest of the hand illustrated pages out of the book and destroys them as well.

 

Horseshoe crab beach orgy

Oh…and if you’re squeamish, beware: horsehoe crab beach orgies play a significant role in the novel as well…

 

SO MANY THINGS THAT DON’T MAKE ANY SENSE. Here’s another passage that just… I didn’t…GAH!!!…

 

“For the first time since we began talking, Alice looks at me. She’s calm, matter of fact. ‘So when you take his money—because you will—just know that you’re taking it from an old man who’s fixated on his dead friends. You’re asking a lot of me.’

“‘I don’t have a choice.’

“‘You do. You can leave.’ She takes a deep breath. ‘I think maybe you should leave. Maybe I should. I thought—forget it.’”

 

AAAARRRRGGHHHH!!! And this is the problem with Swyler’s characters…not only do they not know how to make choices, they don’t even know how to express themselves verbally…and so they just schlump through their lives, continuing to be annoying assholes to one another, with each other, torturing themselves with the assholery-ness of one another. Why don’t you all just leave and get a fucking life???!! Why doesn’t Alice leave that fuck-tard, Simon??? Why doesn’t Simon kick his shitty, bratty, white-trash, carnie sister to the curb??? Why does Simon hold out until the end of the book to try killing himself??? JUST DO IT IN CHAPTER THREE AND SAVE THE READERS OF THIS BOOK THE AGONY!!!!

 

There’s a lot of irony in this novel, and one of them is that another character (in the earlier-period half of the book) is mute. And yet he is able to communicate much more effectively with his loved ones, in part through the use of the tarot cards, which he uses to express the subjects to which he is referencing as well as actions and feelings and emotions…exactly the way that tarot cards are supposed to work.

 

Another somewhat frustrating experience with this book concerns writing style. There’s nothing expressly wrong about the grammar or punctuation. But there’s something off about Swyler’s dialogue and paragraph writing that this reader tried several times to put his finger on. Characters are constantly saying something out loud…refraining from saying what they actually want to say or what they really feel…then continue eliding into the thoughts in their heads (without a break)…then possibly say something else in the middle of a rambling inner-thought paragraph…(wait, did he say that out loud, or was he still thought-streaming?)…Wait, is that a tidbit of narration, or is Simon describing something she used to do when they were little kids, or what she’s doing now?…What…Oh, fuck.

 

An example:

 

“She blinks. ‘What the fuck are you reading?’

“‘I honestly don’t know.’ My head is exploding and my eyes feel like I spent hours in the wind. If it’s possible to have a reading hangover, I have one. The desk clock reads 7:30; it’s early for Enola. I spent years dragging her out of bed for school, wrestling her as she kicked and growled. It’s possible she never went to sleep. ‘Why are you up?’”

 

So did Enola “never go to sleep” when she was a kid in school…or is he talking about the present past-night-morning? Simon doesn’t know what the fuck he’s reading, so why should we even care that he read anything? Does he not know the subject of the book he’s chosen?…or is he just not smart enough to comprehend what he’s reading?…or is he trying to be evasive? …Some contemporary authors think that the colloquial speech patterns and blather that we dribble out of our sloppy American mouths is appropriate for literature, like it will ring more true-to-life, and that some meaning can be gleaned from the slackerdom of poor conversational English. It’s not true. Get over yourselves. The art of writing is painting a picture, inferring and implying story, elucidating meaning where the dialogue of men fail. This book just fails.

 

This is not to say that Swyler doesn’t have brief flashes of a well-turned passage. Though the concept is INCREDIBLY flawed, the actual benediction of the curse upon the deck of cards has a subtle and eloquent poetry to it:

 

“‘She touched her hand to the paper, feeling Amos in it, and whispered a prayer for him. She said the words she would have said for her father. ‘Keep him safe. Give him family. Give him a home. Drive the Rusalka [evil water spirit] from him; that she will drown in sorrow deep enough to tremble through her blood. May the water take that blood and wash her and her line away. Let her not drown another man. Keep him safe.’

“Ryzhkova was accustomed to tarot with its layers of meaning, interpretations, and reversals, and how a picture might look one way but contain a contrary truth. Used to her silent apprentice, she had forgotten that language itself was as subtle and slippery as her cards, and that words contained hidden seeds that blossomed with a speaker’s intent. A wish for safety meant nothing if the force behind it was a desire to kill. Though she spoke of love and protection, dread, grief, and anger bled through. Each word that fell from her tongue bound itself to paper with a small part of her soul, infusing the cards not with love as she thought, but with a hex burned strong by fear. Buried in the heart of the deck, the Fool’s eyes shut.”

 

Delicious when she lets things flow. …And yet, for someone so enthralled with tarot cards, how could the author be so careless as to assign to them the very thing that legitimate tarot readers are CONSTANTLY denouncing? By which I mean that anyone who tells you that you are cursed by anyone or anything…is a complete charlatan and con artist and ought to be turned in to the authorities. Legitimate tarot readers and enthusiasts have spent years disqualifying the myth of curses that somehow need rectifying by soothsayers and fortunetellers…because they don’t exist…and the myth hurts people. At the very least, the author could have used the opportunity of 339 pages-worth of storyline to dispel such ignorant urban myth and fear mongering. Unfortunately…

 

…She did not.

 

Now, do I think that words have power and effect and repercussions? Yes, I do. The New York Times Op-Ed commentary writer Thomas L. Friedman recently pointed out that it was violent rhetoric and extremist messaging from right-wing opponents that eventually encouraged a Jewish extremist to be emboldened to assassinate Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. Ironically, the main fomenter of such rhetoric—Benjamin Netanyahu—who was captured on film “in now-infamous footage addressing a feverish right-wing rally from a balcony in Jerusalem’s Zion Square, as protestors below shouted for the death of Rabin”…this same man is now prime minister of Israel. Ironically, a current presidential candidate in the United States has been documented insinuating that gun rights advocates might fulfill their own gun-bearing destiny if they “did something” about the alternative presidential candidate. Bishops in South American nations who protest the prospect of same-sex marriage verbally denounce LGBT people as abnormal and use scurrilous slurs to reference LGBTQ individuals, feeling that it is their rightful freedom of conscience and religious freedom to derogatorily slander people…and extremist congregants take such execrations as license to roam neighborhoods and favelas to assassinate people that they think are gay or lesbian or transgender. So YES, I do think that words have power and repercussions. The death count tells us so, and the silent apathy in the aftermath perhaps makes it feel like surreal mysticism or a curse. But it’s not. These are all examples of people making choices and decisions with their words, and affecting the psyches of the [fearful or disturbed or ignorant] people they are addressing…in feverish right-wing rallies, in political candidate forums, from a pulpit to a rapt and zealous religious congregation.

 

The kind of curse that Swyler has evoked in her novel is the kind of disturbance that can only come from intimidation and irrationality. The novel’s contemporary-day characters, awful as they are, keep questioning whether all of the tragedy in their family might just be attributable to a genetic disposition to “sadness.” And, well, yes; that’s entirely possible. And, yes, that kind of genetically-predisposed depression is certainly a type of curse…but it’s not the type of curse that a gypsy fortuneteller or even a witch can reap on another individual. Sorry hipster witches…you aren’t capable of doing those things. What you can do (but shouldn’t) is fuck somebody up in the brain so much with your taunts and bullying and ill-advised public words, that the person has a mental breakdown and does something tragic, or in turn, someone who listened to you and psychotically feels you’re taunts should be accentuated more strongly decides to go out and murder the object of your bullying. This is why ethics exist…it’s what legitimate tarot readers and wiccan practitioners and full-out witches really ought to be focused on. Tarot reading and wiccan gaia and witchcraft and Christian mysticism and Catholic mass are all things that can heal…if you’re practicing one of these honorable traditions and doing something other than practicing healing ritualization, you’re doing it wrong.

 

So I think it’s unfortunate that the author irresponsibly decided to set back tarot legitimization and tarot academics by about 60-or-so years. This novel doesn’t do the tarot community any kind of service with its stereotyped mythology.

 

By the way, the historical depictions and descriptions of the tarot deck in this book are in NO WAY HISTORICALLY ACCURATE. The hand-drawn-painted deck described in the book that is designed by a Russian fortune teller in the 1770s could not have resembled the Rider-Waite-Smith deck in any way or fashion, because Arthur Waite didn’t even instruct Pamela Coleman Smith about what he wanted his card designs to look like until after 1900. (The Rider-Waite-Smith deck was first published in 1910). Such sloppy-shoddy historical accuracy only contributes to the distain that real tarot readers will have for this book. Truly, whatever happened to book research?

 

Promotional deck merchandise for The Book of Speculation book tour

The publisher—St. Martin’s Press—apparently produced a promotional deck of tarot cards to support the merchandising of the novel. As you can see, it was simply a total rip-off of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which I’ve got no bones with…except that the imaginary deck in the novel in no way could have depicted anything remotely similar to the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. But…whatever. It makes me want to say that perhaps publishers like St. Martin’s Press should consider reverting back to spending money on good editing staff and editorial review of prospectus material…rather than on trifling marketing ephemera expenses such as the promotional tarot decks they had printed for the author’s reading tour.

 

Look; this is the author’s first novel, and I don’t begrudge her the fact that she got published. Because as noted above, she writes some beautiful phrasing and passages at times. She definitely has talent. What I lament is that the publishing house didn’t give her enough feedback to turn this novel into something greater. What I lament is that this doesn’t feel like it went through enough vetting with a peer writers’ group (or that constructive criticism went unheeded). What I lament is that the author didn’t do enough background research to know that she was undermining the profession of a vibrant community of tarot readers. The addendum at the back of the book doesn’t contain any information on the author’s involvement with the tarot, so I can only assume that it is nil-to-void except for perhaps being influenced by decades of hearsay and old wives’ tales and stereotyping. Or perhaps her only experience with tarot comes from the carnie amusements that she claims she was so fond of growing up on northern Long Island. Or perhaps I’m making excuses for the author that don’t exist…hard to say.

 

It’s also hard to say why Swyler’s book received 3-1/2 stars on the Goodreads website. But there is no accounting for the taste of the wider reading public…which is why Fifty Shades of Grey became such a flummoxing phenomenon. Perhaps, just like readers’ oversexed curiosity and piqued interest in the taboo, American women are dying to lose themselves in the fantasy of escaping with the circus and impersonating mermaids who have tea parties at the public pool (which is apparently a “thing” now…). It all feels like too much privileged girlie escapism… which, in her short biography, sounds all too much like Erika Swyler’s priv-lit real life:

 

Erika Swyler, a graduate of New York University, is a writer and playwright whose work has appeared in literary journals and anthologies. Born and raised on Long Island’s north shore, Erika learned to swim before she could walk, and happily spent all her money at traveling carnivals. She is also a baker and photographer and has a baking humor tumblr with a following of 60,000.


Erika lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and a petulant rabbit.
The Book of Speculation is her first novel.

 

As for this reader, I can only recommend this book if you enjoy torturous reading experiences and loathsome characters doing stupid, pathetic, irrational things. At the end of the book, the house that Simon has lived in to [somehow] retain the memory of his parents falls into the sea, exorcizing whatever demons his tortured mommy and daddy subjected themselves to, as well as their sins of adultery. The excuse is given that his father never contributed to the upkeep of the house, so for some reason, Simon should have lived in it for at least a decade more after his father dies and never gave it a thought himself. What a loser. (I also get really tired of the Fall of the House of Usher trope…don’t you?) Again, it’s a shame that the author didn’t stick with developing the 18th-century historical-half of the story by itself, I would likely have been less disappointed with her end-product manuscript.

 

Here are some Goodreads reviews with which I, unfortunately, wholeheartedly agreed and couldn’t resist including for their clever and spot-on humor:

 

“Simon is the saddest sack that ever sacked. When methamphetamine would improve your lead character’s personality, it’s time to think again about what you’re writing. …Such was my irritation with Simon-the-sad-librarian that I could not complete this book…I rage-quit.”

 

“I feel like a curse has been placed on me that somehow forced me to read all the way through the awfulness of this book.”

 

“I wonder if I had consulted a pack of tarot cards before reading this book, if it would have told me to pass on it.”

 

 

 

 

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