Misadventure, the debut collection of short stories by Nicholas Grider and the second book published by Texan small press A Strange Object, is a study in uncertainty. It may well have been composed by way of dictation, perhaps through the intermediary of a tin can telephone, to an uncomprehending amanuensis. What else could explain the rash of interrogatives and inquisitives that plague the nonetheless confidently written (one might say overconfident) stories?
Well, a lot of things. That’s sort of the point: the unknowing. In these stories, the reader’s suspense is a game, sometimes eroticized and often unfulfilling. It’s a kind of sex play, simultaneously much more and much less meaningful than that would imply—as sex tends to be.
The title story, which opens Section Two of the book, is a relatively simple (by which I mean literary) story of a drowning and a hanging, deemed by the police an accident and a suicide, respectively, and the narrator’s subsequent sexual obsession with them. It’s an excellent character study shot through with subtlety and ambiguity, which is completely spoiled by the inclusion of textbook-style discussion questions at the end of each segment. This ruination is not an accident.
Q. Why might Martin have gone to such elaborate lengths to reenact a scene and oblige the men sexually? Q. Is any part of what happened in all three reports possibly eroticized for Martin?
Both the drowning and the hanging involve ropes and knots. As Grider goes out of his way to point out on several occasions, the ropes belonged to Martin.
Oh, I should probably mention that Misadventure contains a lot of bondage. Like, a lot lot. People get tied up, sometimes to chairs and sometimes just to themselves, and not in a heroes vs. villains way. They want to be tied up; it’s their thing. Maybe it’s Nicholas Grider’s thing, too; I’m not judging. These people get tied up, and then they wait. The boredom, the suspense that goes on for far too long to be titillating, is part of the game.
I can’t properly review this book without talking about ruined orgasm. Ruined orgasm is a subset of BDSM practice in which the submissive partner, usually male, is brought slowly to the brink of climax only to have the defining moment “ruined” by the introduction of an unpleasant stimulus or the complete withdrawal of stimulus. The physical process moves forward bereft of the usual sense of satisfaction. But it must be fulfilling on a nonphysical or nonpsychological level; after all, this is something the men actively seek out.
“Somewhere Else Entirely,” one of the rare stories that does not prominently feature men being tied up with rope, is the preamble to a wedding or a murder or both. It begins, “Or so maybe Kristy nurses her multiple-source and multiple-nature aches and doesn’t go to the wedding.” This isn’t written like a question, but the tone of the narrative, studded with maybes, is questioning, uncertain. “Maybe what people secretly want from Kristy Leamer,” Grider writes, “is a kind of happy ending consisting of her completely going up in wispy gray smoke, a disappearing act, a black hole.”
The maybes and maybe nots bind the narrative and Kristy, leaving her, for much of the story, hunched, half-dressed, half-undressed, with no way to move forward or backward. It’s bondage again, but not erotic, until you get to the second section of the story, where there’s a drastic shift in tone: not only declarative, but imperative.
When you enter the Walmart, you’re going to want to head about ten degrees to the right of straight ahead, passing big loads of tube socks and plastic crates and cheap pillows as you head back toward the far wall, where, once you’re back there, you have the choice of either what’s in front of you (the store’s Media Center), what’s to the left (men’s clothing and shoes), and what you want, which is to the right about fifteen or sixteen aisles, because this is a larger-than-average Walmart.
Here is where Kristy buys a hatchet, perhaps for later use in her big disappearing act. Remember that bondage has always been central to the spectacle of disappearing, the Houdini escape act.
Pretty much the same thing happens in “Happy Ending,” which is interesting because the story opens and closes on the image of the protagonist Lucy’s former high school going up in flames, flames that are not visible because all Lucy can see is dark gray smoke, which almost exactly repeats the image cited earlier of a vision of Kristy “going up in wispy gray smoke.” This is another story in which the bondage is metaphorical. It’s the same story with the questions and the same uncertainty binding the protagonist, and this time binding the story itself, and it’s the same disappearing act, though this time it probably doesn’t end up meaning anything even though it feels like it should.
I could continue in this vein with other stories like “Disappearing Act,” Section One’s opener, where there’s that image again, and this is another story bound in knots by questions, something that could be a mystery except that its suspense passes beyond the point of pleasure and, anyway, the big revelation (which never comes) was bound to be a disappointment anyway, but maybe it’s that disappointment we were seeking to begin with.
Homosexuality is also a consistent theme here, if you can call it a theme. In fact, it’s so common it becomes normative. This is a book that unqueers queerness and unfetishizes the fetishes that, let’s be fair, most of us have engaged in anyway at one time or another, as suggested in “Millions of Americans Are Strange,” the story which opens the collection and is meant to be ironic, or maybe not. Grider’s stories offer a sublime sense of dissatisfaction and are definitely worth exploring. And they’re certainly better than that Fifty Shades crap.
Millions of Americans are naked. Millions of Americans get tied to chairs at some point in their lives. … Millions of Americans just want an answer. Millions of Americans can’t wait anymore.