Each story in Lincoln Michel’s debut collection, Upright Beasts, contains an element of unreality that delights even as it unsettles. Michel’s stories exist in an uncanny America, a place both familiar and strange, lending these stories an almost fairy tale-like quality. But, if these are modern fairy tales, they are more Grimm than Disney. Above all, the world of Upright Beasts is decidedly dark and unsafe. In these stories, the children run the school, unsupervised; the neighborhood swimming pools are death traps; and even the fresh air is hiding something deadly. Yet, somehow, Michel’s characters find ways to persevere under frightening and often bizarre circumstances. Even during a zombie apocalypse, everyday life doggedly trudges on.
On the first page, Michel dedicates his book to the abyss. “Thanks for always gazing back,” he writes. This might seem dark to some readers, but Michel’s heroes are anything but. In fact, they are often so cheerful and inquisitive that most of these stories read more like comedy than tragedy. Michel’s protagonists tend to heroically position themselves, often ineffectually, between the vicious world and its victims, motivated simply by the knowledge that it’s the right thing to do.
In “The River Trick,” for example, the narrator labors against his neighbors’ suicidal tendencies—“My neighbors try to kill themselves at least twice a month,” the protagonist explains. “They’re not very good at it.” But despite the narrator’s best efforts, when one neighbor’s suicide attempt succeeds, the protagonist finds himself in court, only to be indicted because he lacks the proper certification or training to intervene on his neighbors’ behalves. This is how his trouble begins. In Upright Beasts it’s difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.
But why were the neighbors suicidal? The short answer is that Upright Beasts exists in a fallen world. In Michel’s stories, ambient despair is often the nature of things. There is something here of The American Dream, but seen through a glass darkly. The traditional institutions of modern life—apartments, jobs, family, friends, neighbors—all seem to teeter on the verge of collapse. These are stories from the recession and at every turn ordinary life rises up in protest against Michel’s heroes. Life for the characters in this collection is often difficult and unfair, and things always go from bad to worse. In the last few pages of “The River Trick,” after the hero loses his job and his girlfriend leaves him, taking one of the cats with her, he explains what his life as become:
The whole city has gone to hell. My cereal is soggy, the citrus is sour. I get lonely. The cat, Spick, meows constantly. Patricia took Span with her along with the computer and most of our books. She left me the flatscreen, though.
Unlike fairy tales, the surreal elements in Upright Beasts are not usually some external novelty imposed by the storyteller—there are no enchanted beans, fairy godmothers or magical forests here (though, admittedly, there are some zombies)—instead, the supernatural forces are most often embedded in character. In “Almost Recess,” for example, when an elementary school teacher’s class decides to construct a gallows for a science fair project, a “teachable moment” about the nature of death goes wrong in the worst way possible.
The surreal elements, here, function as a kind of metaphorical stand-in for our 21st century insecurities, desires and strange impulses. We are a damaged people, and Michel harnesses fantasy to externalize what is hidden in in dark corners of the American soul.
Many of these stories read less like literary fiction and more like fables for our time—a storybook structure pumped full of existential dread. In “My Life in the Bellies of Beasts,” for example, the narrator learns his place in the world not by traversing the usual avenues, but in being consumed by increasingly large animals. The matter-of-fact way in which Michel handles this narrative is particularly impressive:
“What are you doing in there?” the girl said when she saw me peeking from the back of the mouth.
“I live down here,” I said, ashamed.
“Well, come on out!”
She laughed, but I was afraid and slid back down into the guts. I didn’t think a boy who had lived his life in the bellies of beasts was worthy of her.
The boy spends his young life as a guest inside a number of hosts, each belly more spacious than that last. And although he is lonely, he has the opportunity to experience the drama of the food chain from the inside out. Michel’s best stories have this wise, mythic quality, but remain complex, funny and difficult to define. They are tiny, powerful stories that continue to engage the imagination long after reading.
The back cover of Michel’s book reads: “We are the upright beasts, doing battle with our darker, weirder impulses as the world collapses around us.” These stories cast flickering shadows of our own grotesque, superficial and distinctly modern nature. Without passing judgment or imposing morality, Michel manages to reflect a familiar world through a distorted lens, combining the supernatural and the mundane into something distinctly American. The beast gazes at us in recognition and, dumbly, we gaze back.