Reviewers have described Nicholas Grider’s debut story collection Misadventure (A Strange Object, 2014) as a book that “would warrant curiosity if it were photocopied, stapled together, and passed out at a busy Starbucks” and as bursting with “writing that is engaging and refined, yet intrepid in the best of ways”. Readers have been compelled to describe Misadventure as “dark and haunting and unusual” , been fascinated by its “intensive exploration of American representations of masculinity”, and been moved to praise it for its “readable yet innovative approaches to how to tell a story.”
None of this recognition surprises me in the least, as I’ve been fortunate enough to know Nicholas and his work since our years together at CalArts in the late aughts. Having finally given myself the opportunity to spend adequate time with Misadventure earlier this summer, I found I was nevertheless somewhat unprepared for just how masterful these stories are, individually as well as in aggregate. Meticulously patterned, heartbreaking, hilarious, disturbing, wise, befuddling, at times maddening—like some test tube-d offspring of Aimee Bender, Georges Perec, J. Robert Lennon and James Purdy—and graced with prose that is both supple and unrelenting, Misadventure is poetic in an unmistakably American grain.
In an effort to broaden my own appreciation for Misadventure‘s achievements, I last month asked Nicholas if he would be willing to subject himself to a sort of oblique interrogation about his ideas, methods, and aims. He very kindly consented. I hope readers will enjoy his generous, spoiler-free responses as much as I do. And, if you did not know Nicholas’ writing prior to this, be cheered: there’s so much more where this comes from.
1) Misadventure is described by your publisher as a “challeng[ing of] the conventional gay narrative.” Brian Evenson, in his blurb for the book, writes that it is “[a] dark and luscious hell ride through the damaged but nonetheless appealing rituals of bondage.” In your opinion, which is it more important for readers to have some understanding of / appreciation for while reading Misadventure: bondage in particular, or fetishization in general?
This is a tough one because the answer is actually “no,” meaning I don’t think either are particularly integral to the book as a whole although some characters are gay and there’s some bondage. I see it more like this: for me, the book is a collection of mostly somewhat unconventional stories for each of which I posed myself a kind of formal or character-based challenge, so for me it’s a book of outcomes of challenges, meaning, so to speak, it’s all cut from the same (let’s say navy blue satin) cloth. Running through that cloth is the bright red and silver embroidery of bondage and gay men, and the stitching is really easy to see and stands out against the cloth so you notice it first but for me, I’m interested in the cloth: what shade of navy blue? A very shiny satin or a more dull, rough one? Is it fraying at the edges or is it stitched? Meaning I see the book so differently that the way those things pop up is completely understandable but somewhat frustrating to me because it’s a slim amount of embroidery on a large amount of cloth.
2) Would you describe Misadventure‘s construction more in terms of an LP’s sequence and its sides (A and B) or in terms of episodes cross-cutting and flowing into each other over the course of a television’s season?
Probably the latter, as if, maybe, every episode of the show had the same exact set and props for every episode but each episode has new actors playing new roles for one episode only. The A/B sequencing was the very good idea of the editors, but since these stories were written intermittently over a seven year period, and in a binder I have other stories with other actors on the same set, I would say that there’s a certain amount of consistency but maybe something even as subtle as camerawork in the episodes (like: how tight are the shots?) changes things enough that, while there’s plenty of consistency, there isn’t any redundancy, or I least I hope not.
3) The majority of Misadventure‘s stories explore interpersonal failures without reference to the peculiar pathos of online existence. Rather, these are stories set firmly IRL, where apartment complexes, shitty workplaces, traffic, Walmart and chain restaurants simultaneously supply the backdrop for and define the texture of the social. In fact, these stories, when they do turn their attention to technology, tend to focus more on “traditional” devices, such as television. As I read through the collection, it occurred to me that this choice was both respectful of literary-qua-literary tropes and risky in the context of stories whose telling proposes such an immediate contemporaneity. Could you comment on the role media, social or otherwise, and mediation play in your imagining of these stories?
As above: some of these stories predate things like Facebook, but actually this technological blind spot is new (and interesting) to me, rather than being intentional. “Disappearing Act” references internet use but otherwise, you’re right. There are three plausible reasons for this. First, “online existence” to me is rudimentary and mainly means email, Google searches, and online shopping. I don’t own a smartphone, I don’t check Facebook that much, so when I’m writing about the characters I want to write about, online shopping doesn’t sound like something interesting to write about though now that I’ve said that I’ll probably end up writing a story about online shopping as a challenge. Reason two is that as a fiction writer I’m interested in what I call, borrowing from the title of a book by artist Uta Barth, “the long now,” meaning I’m more interested in a kind of almost suspended animation in which one or more characters exist, with both past and future weighing upon them. This is why I have reader-patience-testing problems as a novelist, because a 500-page book that covers the span of four days seems fine to me when people probably want what some of these stories have, namely forward momentum and plot. The third reason is kind of a tough inversion of write what you know: I’m autistic, and for people with autism in-person interface is tough while online sociality is easy, so for me the internet is almost too normative to write about while two people face to face remains, to me, somewhat of an alien thing.
4) Is unrequited love something to traverse, much like a landscape (or, in the realm of the senses, to soar over, like a terroir) or is unrequited love more something one must endure, like an amputation?
I’d actually say it’s something you pick up and carry with you; it probably got shoved into your arms but you end up having some say over how to carry it, where to carry it, and for how long. And that there’s romantic love and unrequited love in the book is part of the challenge I mentioned earlier: I’ve never been in romantic love or experienced unrequited love so speculating about those things becomes a source of ideas.
5) Can masculinities coexist? Or are most (all?) masculinities mutual exclusions of each other?
I think masculinities can coexist, in fact I’d say that a “masculinity” is an uncertain thing with uncertain edges and that a few or many different masculinities can overlap temporarily or in a more fixed way in someone’s persona. I’ve considered writing a book of nonfiction about different masculinities I’ve observed, whether it’s a stranger I see at the grocery store or a man I’ve known since childhood, but those explorations are probably more interesting in the more charged space of fiction. At least for me.
6) As the narrator of “Push Push Push” posits to himself, I would like to pose to you: which philosopher is more meaningful to you in your own everyday existence: Nietzsche, Levinas, or ______? How so?
Levinas. For the book I guess you could say either Foucault or else queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who was a formative influence on me when I began writing, but in my daily life, as I get older and for several reasons, I ask myself more and more not what and how much I can get but what and how much can I give to others, to The Other.
7) What do you think of normcore?
I had to Google it but: I’m fascinated. In an Entropy Sunday list I expressed my “guilty pleasure” of trying to pass as a “normal” person, and it’s a little dicey because the choice to not dress in a fashionable way is still a fashion choice, but (even though the stories in Misadventure would indicate otherwise) I’m fascinated by what people mean by “normal” and how/why they aim for it. I have a never-to-be-finished novel started about two straight men who go to an upscale mall in Milwaukee because one of them needs to buy a suit. That’s it. These are average, upper-middle-class straight white men. So I guess for me the thrill isn’t even normal, it’s boring and dull. It brings to mind one of my favorite writers, Ivy Compton-Burnett, for whom boredom and normalcy are really enormous and seemingly thick edifices behind which is a considerable amount of wild sexuality and horror. I really want to explore normalcy this way, what drives and defines it, though sometimes that means by starting with the abnormal and drawing a kind of exclusionary outline.
8) What, as a writer, do you “get out” of writing short stories that you do not “get out” of the other kinds of creative labor available to you?
Short stories are tidy. They’re generally not anchored to a time, so I can write a ten page story in four hours or four years, but the appeal is that the package is very small, which helps given my maximalist tendencies, so I can have something finished and sealed shut, as it were, vs. rambling novels or photographs whose worth is derived in part by chance and in part by timing. Stories exist outside of that, and don’t all go on approximately forever like my novels or books of complexly linked poems or unclassifiable experiments.
9) Speaking of them as conscious entities, some of Misadventure‘s stories seem like they long for narrative and its closure, while others, like “Happy Ending,” ultimately express something like contempt for narrative and its singular expectations. How much of Misadventure‘s pensive play with respect to “the kind of work short fiction should do” is a restaging of how narrative is fraught and freighted for you as a human person?
A lot of the lack of closure is informed by my life experience, where I haven’t yet gotten to the question of “what happens next” because I’m still stuck in the question of “what exactly is going on?” More often than not, for miscellaneous unimportant reasons, I don’t have a good explanation for “what’s going on” so my attentions turn toward answering questions of definition before I make it (if at all) to any questions of forward momentum and/or closure.
10) What secret would Misadventure, at all costs, keep? Or, if that proves to be an impossible question: How might Misadventure “discipline” itself were it to let its most secretive of secrets slip into disclosure?
I think the secret touches on the normcore you mentioned before, in the secret is that normalcy doesn’t really exist, that everyone everywhere is always in the process of having strange encounters with a strange world, and if neither the encounters nor the world seem strange it’s because of either denial or repetition. Many of my characters want to deny things about themselves or others but are unable to quite manage it, and are aghast at their failure(s).
11) “This is everything I know and most of what I suspect.” These are very nearly the first words that confront the reader in Misadventure. Later in the same story (“Disappearing Act”), the narrator writes “Why do I need more information than I already have? What do I need to know?” Both this assertion and these questions could very well be proclaimed by your readers. Maybe they even constitute a sort of reader’s manifesto. If you could appropriate your own manifesto—the author’s—from Misadventure, what would you choose?
Two lines that contain a lot of the book’s motion in them, or maybe between them, are the lines “Could any of this really be true?” from “Disappearing Act” and “All things almost being equal, do anything but just keep sitting still, treading water, staring at the black hole, burning out from the inside” from “Somewhere Else Entirely.” And by contain I don’t mean that they neatly encapsulate the book, but that between them they are a kind of big X marks the spot for many of the characters in the stories—stunned disbelief at their situations, eagerness to do something about those situations, and having no idea what the best remedies for their situations are. Many of the characters are caught between the urgency brought about by strong feelings and the motionlessness of confusion and fear, whether it’s fear of the new or fear that things will stay the same. I’m interested in characters who don’t have the answers, and who suspect that there might be answers but have no idea how to find them or what they might be, so they have to improvise and often how uncertainty can lead to repetition, which can lead to obsession and fixation, not always in a healthy way. Much of the book comes from a position of uncertainty, and if bondage really is a motif in the book it’s less in a literal way than in this internal trap of discomfort and indecision. That’s not to say that that’s my view of what most people are like, but rather that a certain amount of “being-stuck” that “normal” people carry around with them (with us?) is, in these stories, amplified to the point where it has serious, irreversible consequences.
12) If you could help any one of your characters out of his / her predicament, to whose aid would you come? How? Why?
I have a huge amount of empathy for Kristy. Kristy has a literal map to Walmart but that’s the only map she has; she’s very lost. There’s no closure in “Somewhere Else Entirely” partly because there’s no map, but (for me as an author) Kristy being lost is not really her fault, so if I could lend aid to any of my characters I would help Kristy to 1) find a map, 2) pick a healthy route, and 3) head there confidently.
Nicholas Grider is an artist and writer. Misadventure is his debut collection of short stories and has been longlisted for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Nicholas is most recently the author of Thirty Pie Charts (Gauss PDF). He is currently at work on a novel and a series of documentary photography projects.