Peter Grandbois is the author of The Gravedigger, The Arsenic Lobster, Nahoonkara and the PEN nominated translator of San Juan: Memoir of a City. He is also the author of numerous short stories. He is a professor of creative writing and contemporary literature at California State University in Sacramento.
"Passages of spiky adrenalin play against a melancholic, duende-driven introspection as identity is assembled and re-assembled in a strobe-lit chamber"
"Grandbois transports us through a series of obsessions with disciplines of the utmost rigor — the sword, the guitar, the pen--until the self achieves immolation in the service of art."
For my thirtieth birthday, I had a storytelling party. When no one knew what to talk about, I asked for a story about a scar. Even though I cringe through them, even though I cover my mouth, even as I gasp and violently shake my head and fall just short of shrieking, I love them. Stories about scars give me an experience I could never otherwise have.
My own scars are uninteresting. Surgeries. Tattoos. Stupid adult mistakes. My only scars I find interesting are the ones that precede my memory. I’ve got a straight line down my bicep a couple inches long. I’ve had it “forever,” but I haven’t a clue what happened. I’ve got a flat slug under my chin, gnarled and white and mysterious. I wasn’t born with it — something happened to me. It happened one time and it stayed with me, living in my skin all the way to now.
Back when it first happened, I was a different person. It was anyone’s guess who or what I’d become. At some point, it was possible that I could’ve been the sort of person who sought out scars. I could have decided that stories weren’t enough. Self-sabotage is attractive when dressed up as experience. Undoing, erasing, or ruining your life becomes a viable prospect when the alternative is never doing anything: a life of inexperience. But even after you’re experienced, self-sabotage stays with you, just like a scar. And you wind up fighting every person you’ve ever been.
So it goes in Peter Grandbois’s book, The Arsenic Lobster. Labeled as a “hybrid memoir,” I found myself wondering how much was true — did the second person narrator really swim for miles in a rancid canal? Did he really chase down a six-foot boa constrictor? Did he really hang off the top of his friend’s car while his friend tried to send him flying with his own recklessness? Of course he did. And of course it’s true. The physically dangerous decisions we foolishly made in childhood — especially a suburban childhood like Grandbois had (and like I had) — were easier to accept because, when you’re just a body, you don’t care what happens. You’ll heal eventually. But after you become a mind, a conflicted, oversensitive brain, decisions become harder to make. It becomes more difficult to accept what you’ve done because you’ll remember it, because experience is permanent. Grandbois exploits the transition between body and mind, between childlike faux-impermanence and concrete, selective amnesia:
"The further back you go, the more shadows you find. You catch glimpses beneath the surface of memory: Kids alone in their house sniffing glue. Do you want some? Another kid takes a baseball bat to a parked car. Do you join him? Another tells you to distract a clerk while he steals the Dungeon Master’s guide. Do you go along? Another pulls down his pants and asks you to suck his dick. Do you? Another hits a defenseless kid. Calls a kid a faggot. Calls a kid a queer. Do you stop them? Many, many kids drinking, taking shrooms, smoking pot, disappearing in rooms. Images flash through your mind, but strangely, your part in these memories remains in shadow. Flicking in and out like the old TV show, The Outer Limits. Don’t adjust your vertical hold. There’s nothing wrong with your television set. You stand on the edge of memory, always observing, wondering when, how, if ever, you participated."
Upon reaching adolescent self-awareness, Grandbois taps into hyperawareness, watching everyone watching him. So he takes up fencing, a spectator sport that scars him physically and emotionally, breaking his hand, ending his first marriage, making him both more and less noble than he would’ve been otherwise. He describes his life away from fencing as a dream, the sort you can’t wake up from. He is most alive when fighting, be it with himself, or with an imagined self. He risks those selves each times, but they always seem to multiply, just like choices. With the right amount of perspective, anything is possible, but then, how do you choose? It’s no easier than choosing who to be. While Grandbois is himself, always, he is only one of many selves, with each self becoming more dominant, more permanent, more willing to sacrifice another part to be the real you in the end. And even in the end, still taking risks, abandoning dreams both likely and remote, he imagines the future, wherein he’s still fighting and still collecting scars and making new possibilities and imagining the self that will get to win out, the one that hopes “when he is that age, he will be able to look in the mirror and whisper to himself, Go to hell.”
My most unmysterious, pre-memory scar comes from a mirror. I first discovered it when I was twenty-two. I shaved my head, making me look very different than the person I’d been before, and about four inches from my forehead, there was a length of sickly white skin where my hair didn’t grow. I remembered an inconsequential story my father once told me about a mirror that had fallen on me when I was very young. Apparently, I caught the corner with my head. In my invented recollection, it happens one of two ways. Either I see a baby, which I understand is me, and the mirror falls and hits my head and there’s a bit of blood, then it’s over; or I’m very short, but not a child — that is, I’m me, only smaller, and the mirror falls toward me and breaks before it makes contact. Neither is true, but I don’t really think it matters. Like any experience, I can’t go back and undo it. And, like the experience I borrow whenever I hear a story or read a book, it’s difficult to imagine a mirror that doesn’t hold a dozen selves.