By Lincoln Michel
Coffee House Press
Reviewed by Ilana Masad
Though I am a long-time, faraway Twitter admirer of Lincoln Michel, I realized when entering his fiction that I had no idea what to expect. I knew he was funny, prolific, and sharp (as his bio reads, he is, after all, "a self-described 'fairly frequent tweeter'" and so I've had plenty of time to see these traits), but I hadn't read any of his fiction before.
His short story collection, Upright Beasts, then, was a wonderful surprise in that it met and then exceeded my expectations. It holds a variety of storytelling styles and subject matters, many of them delightfully weird, that straddle the exciting place between genres. The book contains multitudes: the literary, the science fictional, the magically realist, the slipstream, and the humorous. These come in all combinations, forms, and sizes, often smashed together in an amalgamation as bizarre and alluring as the star-fallen creatures in the story "Dark Air."
It is clear early in the collection that we humans are the upright beasts of which Michel speaks (one needn't read the back cover description to figure this out), but somehow this isn't as shameful as it could be. There is an acceptance in these stories of the beastliness alongside the uprightness; a feeling of bothness which feels at home with itself here. While Michel is clearly inspired by the likes of Ben Marcus and George Saunders, he has combined the former's playfulness in terms of concept and language with the latter's deep empathy, creating something new and all its own. The first story in the collection, for example, is set at a school which has, for mysterious reasons, stopped functioning as a school. The teachers fall into mythology; the children move from anarchy to a Lord of the Flies-like dictatorship state; and the narrator lies in the place between a maybe-true memory of what school used to be like and a maybe-false belief that the school was ever anything other than it is. He alone maintains the idea that education and school existed while the memories of the other former pupils crumble. The story shows this transformation wonderfully, as in its first pages a boy named Randal says, "This school only ever existed to beat us down and prepare us for a world in which we were powerless. Homework is indoctrination. Education is a cog in the machine of the ruling class." Ironic, this, as later on in the story, the new ruling class—that is, the one ruler, Bulger—says, "The concept of teachers is absurd. What kind of teacher would leave their students? Such a teacher would be no teacher at all. So, we must conclude that the teachers are a false tale that students tell themselves to avoid facing the real struggles in their lives. They're a myth, and a harmful one." Teachers have become a false god, while the "black lounge," once the teacher's lounge, is a hellish place into which the narrator is finally thrown for his continued heretical idea that he will, eventually, have someone to turn a written assignment in to.
One of the themes that unites these stories—diverse and seemingly disconnected as they are—is their attempt to tap into a simple question: What does it mean to be human? While much good fiction addresses this philosophical query, there are scant few authors who manage to do so using absurdist, disconcerting, or subtly weird plots. Michel is one of these. His language is for the most part succinct and unassuming, so that a reader is left either nonplussed, or (and sometimes on a second reading) sinking into worlds that may start out as familiar but often change very quickly. In all the stories, his characters rise to meet challenges they often can't face, match up to, or stand up to, and sometimes the endings of these characters' tales are left dangling for us to untangle or accept as the messiness that is life. In "What You Need to Know About the Weathervane," a very short story about one man's anger at the wind-direction-informing appendage on his neighbor's roof that keeps falling off every time there's a storm, the action escalates, but it ends with a question, one that is specific to the story but existential (and so both comical and discomfiting) in its essence: "I just want someone to tell me what I'm supposed to goddamn do."
Though Michel's language is for the most part simple, his construction and playfulness are not. "The Deer in Virginia" starts out with the sentence: "Or take the day my father handed me his glass of lemonade and reached for the rifle." "Little Girls by the Side of the Pool" chronicles the conversations of girls who sound young when the story starts out but seem to grow up during their conversation, as if they are all Eves eating forbidden fruit while hanging out at their community watering hole and figuring things out one by one, from their innocent banter to their disturbing understandings about the way men touch or see them.
That story is, like several others, a sort of fable or fairytale, which is another stylistic choice that Michel includes in this collection, most significantly in "The Room Inside My Father's Room" and "My Life in the Bellies of Beasts." In these two stories he looks at spaces and repetition, the ways in which we are stuck inside of things—generational and familial expectations, society's boundaries, our own fears and comfort zones. And these are just a few of the interpretations it's possible to bring to bear here.
Indeed, the fact that so many of the stories in Upright Beasts are open to interpretation, to intense intellectual discussion as well as pure enjoyment, prove Michel to be an incredibly deft storyteller, one whose words flow into stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, but without any predictability. In the very last story, one that comes after the acknowledgments, Michel even has a sort of bonus track, the kind we used to find on CDs and records. "A Note on the Text" fooled me, at first, until I looked it up; I was delighted, and still am, at the fact that Michel is so aware of expectations and rules that he is able to break them with such aplomb, and without apology. Upright Beasts is a lovely, finally genreless, collection, and one that is sure to continue finding an eager audience.