Nicholas Grider paints life in America as MISADVENTURE (2014)
I write what I *don’t* know, mainly. I already know what I know.
-Nicholas Grider, from an online interview with the RUMPUS Book Club
Nicholas Grider’s Misadventure is his debut volume of short stories and the second book that has been published by a new, small literary press, A Strange Object, located in Austin, Texas. I received this book as a part of my paid membership in the RUMPUS Book Club, read it, and joined Mr. Grider and my fellow book club members for an online book club discussion, moderated by Brian Spears, earlier this month.
Grider earned an interschool MFA (art and writing) at CalArts in 2008 after completing an MA in Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee in 2006. He did his undergraduate work at Cardinal Stritch University, from which he received a BA in English/Writing in 2000. He is an artist and curator as well as a writer. According to his CV, he works in photography, installation and performance, in which he is “most concerned with failures of memory and history as well as representations of masculinity in contemporary culture.”
His short stories also evince an interest in these and related themes. The first in the book (and the last to be written), “Millions of Americans Are Strange,” a long paragraph (covering several pages) that is akin to a prose poem, introduces several themes that recur in later stories. These include bondage, mental and physical illness, and sexuality (gay, straight, and in-between). These subjects — which likely prompt questions such as “so you do/know X?”, to which Grider replies in the quotation above — in turn are related to the overarching questions of how memory and history fail and how masculinity is represented in America. This is evident from the first line of the story, which states, “Millions of Americans do strange or extreme things without quite being able to articulate why.” Grider repeats the “millions of Americans” trope, which evolves as the story progresses. Until the end of the story, each repetition is followed with brief vignettes of people whose lives exemplify the particular version of the trope. The story culminates in a series of “millions of Americans” statements that build to a terrifying conclusion:
Millions of Americans just want an answer. Millions of Americans can’t wait anymore. Millions of Americans tilt their heads back and scream. Millions of Americans don’t even have a reason. Millions of Americans do.
The opening story is just the beginning of what has been described (by author Brian Evenson in his book blurb) as “a dark and luscious hell ride.” Many of the texts that follow are stories told via traditional narrative. Form, however, is another device that Grider manipulates, to great effect. For example, “Formers” is an index of the narrator’s former lovers; the vignettes of each relationship paint a picture of the narrator as much as they describe his formers. In “Disappearing Act,” the narrator is unsure of the reliability of his source of information and ends up calling into question all of the details of his story, a tale of the disappearance of a friend’s co-worker at an advertising agency. The title story, “Misadventure,” likewise poses questions about the narrative, which is again a “twice-told tale” that the narrator interrogates — literally, with italicized questions that follow each section of the story. The ride into hell progresses from “Disappearing Act” to “Misadventure”; the latter title relates to a “death by misadventure” which has much darker undertones than the tidy forensic label can contain.
In the RUMPUS Book Club interview, Grider characterized his writing style as “giving the reader room to actively participate, but it can err on the side of too little information.” He prefers to “suggest [rather] than lay something out but that can have its disadvantages” if the reader is expecting a more authoritative voice. However, unlike in novels, short stories allow the author to “suggest and give the readers a highlighted part of the picture instead of the whole deal.” In the case of “Formers,” Grider said, “I wanted to try to hide a story of an illness behind another story, so it’s a guy viewing his own unnamed illness through the lens of his relationships.”
The volume concludes with its longest piece, “Cowboys,” which is also its most intensive exploration of American representations of masculinity. The two “cowboys” are two straight men who were childhood friends. As young boys, they invented a game that involves tying each other up and trying to escape from the tie. Originally drawn from the Western shows they watched on TV, the game is supposed to be their secret (although this rule is occasionally broken, with untoward consequences). They continue to play it in high school, college, and into middle age, when they end up living in the same area with their respective wives and children. Although they reassure each other that the game is merely a test of masculine strength and will, it comes to have sexual overtones as time passes, especially after one of the pair plays the game with other partners whose interest in it goes beyond the gladiatorial. In the end, however, questions of power and loyalty overshadow the sexual and serve to reinforce the two cowboys’ preconceived notion of heterosexual masculinity.
Through the use of bondage, in its various forms, as a metaphor, Grider calls into question the validity of this definition, which the two characters use to blind themselves to the more complicated truth of their relationship. As he commented in the interview, “With relationships, especially intimate ones, a lot of the time (I think) there’s tension between ‘what should I share’ and ‘what should I hide’ if the relationship isn’t that healthy.” In the stories of Misadventure, Grider invites us into this and other tensions that mark the post-modern strangeness of relationships, both with others and with oneself, in America.