Protean Fictions: On Lincoln Michel’s Upright Beasts

Alex McElroy

Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2015. 216 pages.  $16.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Over the past couple decades, the dominance of realist fiction in the literary landscape has been challenged by the rise of weird fiction. Prominent examples include the steampunk fairy tales of Kelly Link, Karen Russell’s swamp-gothic surrealism, and Jeff VanderMeer’s eco-sci-fi Southern Reach trilogy. What links these writers is not a singular, driving aesthetic so much as a disregard for the strictures of mainstream realism. Weird fiction is a genre of possibility and exploration, of fantasy and philosophy, and although its boundaries as a genre are somewhat slippery, it has a deep-rooted history, reaching back to writers such as Silvina Ocampo, H.P. Lovecraft, and Bruno Schulz, among others. Lincoln Michel’s decidedly weird debut collection of stories, Upright Beasts, offers an example of the genre’s possibilities and the scope of its heritage. Though influenced by pop culture fixtures such as horror movies and stand-up comedy, Michel’s work also takes many cues from modernist writers, especially the sense of puzzling whimsy found in the writing of Clarice Lispector and Kobo Abe. In their omnivorous approach to genre and form, these twenty-four stories testify to literary fiction’s continued shift into the strange.

The book’s opening story, “Our Education,” follows a band of teenagers living in their high school after all of their teachers have mysteriously vanished: “[The teachers] are all dead,” the narrator tells us. “Or else they are disintegrated. Or in hiding (but from whom? from us?).” A mash-up of comedy, horror, and coming of age, the story’s campiness is nicely balanced against its exploration of state surveillance and abuses of power. Unsurprisingly, it is the jocks who fill the school’s power vacuum. They are hardly benevolent leaders—all scholastic work has been banned—and the narrator, intent on completing the essay that will be the “key to [his] escape,” spends the story paranoid that his friends have tipped off the jocks about his writing. His paranoia is well-founded, and what he eventually learns are the consequences of anti-conformity.

Like many stories in the collection, “Our Education” revolves around the subject of violence—in particular, its mundane ubiquity in our lives. In “If It Were Anywhere Else,” a short-tempered businessman tries to evade a clingy stranger. When, at the end of the story, the two find themselves alone in an empty parking lot, the narrator attacks the stranger—though Michel pulls away, leaving readers to imagine the extent of the narrator’s rage. “The River Trick” follows a middle-aged man who works in an apartment complex housing suicidal residents. “Almost Recess” could be read as an escalation of Donald Barthelme’s “The School”: a widowed schoolteacher accidentally hangs one of her students. In other stories, grown men throw rocks at children; mothers are habitually murdered; a couple runs over a deer and drags it under their car. In Michel’s stories, violence is rarely shocking; more often than not, it hardly registers with the characters. The couple mentioned above, for instance, does not even realize they have hit a deer until the car breaks down. In many of these realist stories, Michel depicts normalized violence—physical, psychological, verbal—with an unnerving tone of detachment and familiarity.

A more grotesque exploration of this subject appears in stories inspired by sci-fi and horror tropes. “Dark Air,” a story about three friends who come into contact with an alien species, is rife with descriptions of mutilated bodies. A crow-like creature has “flesh [that] was scaly and pink. The exposed skin was split in half by a row of translucent spikes.” One of the friends, infected by the alien species, balloons into a purple, watery mass. A nearby family houses the trio, but they, too, have been infected by the creature: the tips of their fingers bear “watery, pupil-less eyes.” The story might feel a tad shallow to readers expecting painstaking emotional depth, but Michel’s goal in such stories is to entertain. His success depends on how readers feel about genre fiction.

A similar story, “Getting There Nonetheless,” follows a pair of twenty-something couples who vacation in a woodland cabin during the beginning of a zombie apocalypse. Michel hits the expected plot points: numbers dwindle as characters become infected; the world beyond the cabin proves too dangerous to explore. In the final scene Michel enters the mind of one of the zombies, attempting what literature has been doing since Frankenstein: humanizing the unhuman. “Tim felt pain,” the zombie thinks, as another character attacks him with a “sharp metal thing.” It is the failure to appreciate nonhuman life—essentially, a failure to love—that spurs the horror in this final scene, creating a surprisingly emotional conclusion that nicely complicates the genre elements dominating most of the story.

Except for “Dark Air” and “Getting There Nonetheless,” two of the longest pieces in the collection, the majority of Michel’s strange stories are written with fable-like brevity. Bright spots include “My Life in the Bellies of Beasts,” about a young man who grows up in the stomachs of increasingly larger animals. In “The Room Inside My Father’s Room,” a boy who has grown too big for his bedroom busts free and confronts his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, who all live in much larger rooms. Near the end, the narrator’s great-grandfather offers what reads like advice to young writers: “Every young’un thinks they’re a rebel. But we can only build what we know, and from the space that we have.” The only solution, for the boy, is not to build a larger room for himself, but to build a smaller room for his son.

The collection has its fair share of realist pieces, many of which suggest the influence of stylists such as Barry Hannah and Joy Williams. While Michel’s dialogue and prose excel in these stories, characters tend to feel a little flat, or too similar to earlier characters. But stories like “My Brother’s Brief Travels” and “Our New Neighborhood” offer nuanced psychological insights. The latter provides another comment on the surveillance state, as a young mother-to-be obsessively collects the browsing information of her neighbors. The piece is set in suburbia, where the crazed logic of the characters feels troublingly believable, and by the end readers are left questioning their own complicity with the state’s degradation of privacy.

Overall, Upright Beasts is a successful debut collection that proves Michel highly capable of engaging a variety of styles and genres, from the grotesque to the absurd to conventional realism. It is rare, and refreshing, to see such range in a collection. And Upright Beast’s best stories serve as a necessary reminder, amid frequent discussions about the death of literature, that in order for fiction to survive it must embrace its protean nature.

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