Thursday, April 7, 2011

Yellowed Pages: God of Tarot by Piers Anthony

Buried under piles of pulpy, yellowed copies of sci-fi and fantasy lit. Giaco reads and waits. The first Thursday of every month he’ll attempt to review an ancient relic from an ancient time (aka crappy genre fiction from the 70’s and 80’s). Stay with him as you journey into space, caves, voids and dungeons. Unfortunate side effect: from this point on you’ll smell of old books.

Origin Story

Oh, God of Tarot, where do I begin with you? For starters, let’s talk about where I actually picked up this book. I didn’t find it on Amazon, though it’s available there. I didn’t get it from a used bookstore. This literary prize I found in a box marked “FREE” outside a house in Center City, Philadelphia. So I more or less trash picked this first entry into Yellowed Pages. How fitting!

The cover features and handsome young man wrestling with what looks like a Chinese dragon. This dragon, it turns out, is an embodiment of temptation. This man is Brother Paul, our protagonist the warrior monk. So that should set the tone for this whole endeavor.

The Plot (As Best I Can Figure)

The plot of this book makes a lot of sense at first. In fact, the general conceit of the novel is an interesting sci-fi gimmick. Humanity has learned how to transport people to distant planets. As such, half of the population has shipped off for points unknown. This has the unfortunate side effect of being extremely costly in terms of fuel. So now candles replace lightbulbs, horses replace cars, and any and all energy are used for “mattermission.”

Our main character, Brother Paul, is a monk in the Holy Order of Vision. A religious cult that seeks understanding but preaches all faiths, Paul represents the order well. He’s even-tempered, trained and well-versed in many faiths and skills, and believes in a higher power but doesn’t know where to go with that belief. Being our hero he’s called upon to visit a strange planet where “animations” occur. Animations are the physical interpretations of any number of different types of art. Specifically scenes of Tarot cards are coming to life and it’s up to Paul to figure out why.

So he goes to the planet and talks with the locals on Planet Tarot. They are all split into religious sects that hate each other but must work together. He agrees to help them based on his openness to religion and travels to the area on the planet where these “animations” or “visions” occur. He immediately goes headlong into one.

From this point on the plot gets a bit wavy. He sees the pictures presented on Raider Waite tarot cards come to life and eventually he calls upon a guide to help him understand the meanings of these cards. The purpose is to escape from this area of vision (hallucination?) and get back to the colony. For a reason beyond my grasp he chooses Aleister Crowley as his guide, the creator of the Thoth deck of tarot cards. This vision of Crowley is bad news and constantly tries to mess with Brother Paul.
Not helpful.
Still with me? You won’t be after this. The vision of Crowley tricks Brother Paul into drinking cognac, taking cocaine, taking heroin and finally gives him a dose of LSD. Once he takes the LSD he flies in a chariot to a giant golden cup, opens the lid to the cup and sees a giant human turd, and is instantly transported back to his young-adulthood on earth. Pardon?

So the book ends with him engaging in what is essentially a freestyle rap battle with a little girl to prove to the thugs of an underground minority community that he is, in fact, one eighth African American (the book was written in 1979). What??? This has all already happened in his past, and now we experience this through his LSD trip - which happens to him through a Tarot “vision.” And that’s how the book ends! He wins a rap battle, sees a fortuneteller, and first enters the Holy Order of Vision. The End. Forget about the animation he’s stuck in. Forget about Aleister Crowley. None of that is resolved in this installment.

Overall Impressions

And that, in a nutshell, is my biggest problem with the novel. Yes, it was originally written as one humongous volume and chopped into three. No, it is not done as smoothly as Tolkien’s works. We’re left with an ending that isn’t really a cliffhanger, but also doesn’t tie up any of the story. We have no idea what’s causing any of the problems Brother Paul sets out to solve and we’re left very much adrift in the story. Piers Anthony writes in the introduction (along with an apology for the complexity and vulgarity of the work), “This is the opening portion of the larger work… It has its own unity, so may be read alone, though it is hoped the reader will be interested enough to peruse Books II and III also.” Yeah, I bet you hope that. But unfortunately we’re left with nothing to propel us but a nagging sense of WTF.

It’s not a terrible book. It has some very interesting things to say about society and belief and all that jazz. The author's view on women is a bit, uh, dated. Every woman we encounter gets a physical description down to a sexy tee. Still, there's some interesting talk about race and the role of women in this book. And if you like noodling around with tarot cards and understand a bit about their history than there’s a lot to like in this book. But come on, at least give us a little cliff to hang off of while we decide if we should Amazon books II and III!

Wait, They Said That?

Let me leave now like I’ll leave you every month; with the best quote from the book.

“He came up to the monstrous chalice, that goblet of Jesus, the quintessence of ambition, and peeked under the glorious cover. There was an odor, awful and out of place, but he ignored it. Here at last was Truth, was Soul!
            It was a huge, half-coiled, half-broken, steaming human turd.”