Misadventure, by Nicholas Grider. Austin, Texas: A Strange Object. 168 pages. $14.95, paper.
I like my men like I like my cops
Cuffing me, beating me,
and chewing my ass out for nothing
A few years ago, between sips of bourbon, a friend of mine came up with this variation on the old set joke; it turned out to be one of the better laughs either of us had had in a long while. The truth in the joke is so close to the surface, it’s all but self-aware, and practically does the laughing for you. The experience of reading Nicholas Grider’s Misadventure is similar to that admission of erotic preference. Either in repressed form or explicitly, many of the characters in these stories share a taste for abuse-by-authority and corporal discipline.
In sixteen quick pieces covering a hundred fifty pages, Grider tracks his characters’ sadist or masochist (or the best kind: sadomasochist) tendencies with a dry, propulsive clarity. Schadenfreude is a primary source of inspiration for him. But then again, it was the same for the likes of Nabokov or Bernhard, so why fault him for that?
The book’s cover design could almost be taken as a visual pun on the author’s name, and the schematic structural approach applied to many of these narratives would seem to bear the comparison out nicely. Grids. Repetition. Rhythmic strategies built upon theme and variation. The opening story “Millions of Americans” is the most direct illustration of this, organized around a reiteration of the title phrase and ending with a series of brief, rapid anaphoric ejaculations of it. Ejaculation is just the word to use here: the large majority of the stories are driven and vexed by the compulsions, consequences, and frustrations of expressed or repressed desires. Primarily, the attraction is between men. Most often, bondage is a personal preference of one or more of the characters; and, most faithfully throughout the collection, is a guiding metaphor for the usual things bondage has become representative of in this post-50 Shades, dominatrix-memoir era of sexual self-promotion.
Grider’s writing on bondage is smarter than any of these, but Misadventure might have benefitted from not being so faithful to it as a controlling metaphor. The collection never lets you forget its organizing principle, and after a while the reader ceases to be surprised by each revision and reemergence of it. “Escapology”, a shorter piece earlier in the collection, puts bondage to such devastating and perceptive and scathingly dispassionate purposes, that later variations of it in the book’s shortest piece, “Labor”, and longest piece, “Cowboys” feel diminished by comparison.
The science, the theory, the praxis of escape: “Escapology”. As the title suggests, the story is as comprehensive and detailed about the intersubjective dynamics of bondage as could be hoped for, without killing the fun and awfulness with pedantry. After a criminal steps through his handcuffs to filch a gun from his arresting officer, a reporter covering the story is handcuffed, wrists bound behind his back, and tasked with replicating the escape on live television. The problem is, nothing arouses the reporter more than struggling against restraints, which puts him in the uncomfortable position of distracting the camera from documenting his inevitable erection. This may sound like the stuff of low comedy, but what Grider makes of it is beyond what either tragedy or comedy could manage alone. The story may end with a handcuffed masturbator standing before his bedroom mirror, but the emotional coloring of that closing scenario is anything but silly. Just lonely, very damn lonely.
Many of Misadventure‘s most memorable pieces—”Formers (An Index)”, “Disappearing Act”, and the I-Will-Rip-You-The-Reader’s-Heart-Out-And-Destroy-You high water mark for the collection, the penultimate story “This Is Not A Romance”—work outside that recurrent metaphor, though, and are the stronger for it.
For its simplicity and restraint, “This Is Not A Romance” is the standout story, unique in that it works outside the droll irony that characterizes most of the collection. Following a steady flow of narcissistic, sociopathic, or stoically jaded types, the naivety and vulnerability of “Romance’s” narrator comes across as dangerous and doomed by comparison, in ways that are personal and consequential. The story is short, and its overall effect wouldn’t be rendered well by explication. After a hundred pages of wounded nihilism, it hits the reader like the origin story of everything that preceded it—a muted, calm record of a first betrayal, with no sarcasm or cold judgment to temper the hurt and uncertain future the narrator is left with.
Read all the stories, then read this one last. Then go back and read the whole collection again. Their venom and amused impartiality will seem less condemnatory than extensions of a carefully and painfully acquired knowledge. Their grids, lists, and repetitions will seem more like tools for self-preservation: order and control asserted over lives sorely in need of them.
Kyle Coma-Thompson is the author of The Lucky Body (Dock Street Press, 2013); QUA, a novel, is forthcoming in Spring 2015.