The Bottom Line: ‘Upright Beasts’ By Lincoln Michel

A story collection with peculiar joys for any fan of the uncanny.

In a small Colorado mining town -- a blip on the map -- everything is quiet. There's not much to do, except grab drinks at a local bar, where football games are aired all night. So the narrator of Lincoln Michel's short story, "Some Notes on My Brother’s Brief Travels," drives around aimlessly, contemplates his failing relationship, and ... watches a man in a yellow chicken suit dance on the side of the road?

It's not the sort of precious, quippy scene that'd be at home in a John Green novel or a movie starring Zach Braff. When couched in Michel’s honest, dialectical language, these events feel like the bizarre stories you’d share with a friend over drinks. “The strangest thing just happened to me,” his narrators tell the reader casually, granting their anecdotes an air of wonder and intimacy.

If Michel's stories, which have been recently published in his debut collection, Upright Beasts, are unified by anything, it's this element of the everyday absurd. His characters aren't slowly morphing into bugs or suffering for crimes they didn't commit. They aren't pinching themselves, hoping to wake up from their nightmarish surroundings. Instead, most of them bear witness to the sort of stranger-than-fiction realities of the world beyond the page.

In “Our New Neighborhood,” a husband takes a subdivision surveillance effort too far, while his wife inadvertently scours the web for local wrongdoers on dating sites. By exaggerating the lengths we’ll go to protect our loved ones -- no matter how estranged we feel from them -- Michel crafts a very funny story about marital tension.

In “Halfway Home to Somewhere Else,” a man takes his family -- a new bride and a young child -- to a swimming hole he used to frequent, only to find it’s just as dangerous as it was when he was a rowdy kid. A tiff with hecklers on a nearby cliff quickly escalates to a violent confrontation, broken up by gunshots overhead, fired by the same farmer who’d shooed him off the property decades earlier.

The narrator makes a weighty observation about his narrow dodge of injury, followed by a flippant remark, bringing the reader back to capricious reality. “I was feeling all right though, as if I had fought in a noble war and had been sent home before being blown apart or disfigured for life,” he writes. “When we got to the car, there was a long key mark down the left side.” This quick pendulum swing from deep to shallow makes for a funny feeling of unease, an awareness of the absurdity of violence.

Michel’s stories are set in the strange ether just outside of the real world. With the exception of a few allegorical stories, like the simple and affecting “The Room Inside My Father’s Room,” they’re not the stuff of wild dreams or uncanny worlds. More “The Twilight Zone” or “Twin Peaks” than The Metamorphoses, they express universal fears and wants through the distinctive voices of bewildered suburbanites, and will be a source of peculiar joys for any fan of experimental fiction.

The bottom line:

Michel captures the strangeness of the suburban South, and the rural wilderness surrounding it, through its chorus of blunt voices. His stories are absurd enough to reel you in, and emotionally honest enough to keep you reading.

What other reviewers think:

The Rumpus: "Each story in Lincoln Michel’s debut collection, Upright Beasts, contains an element of unreality that delights even as it unsettles."

Kirkus: "A strong debut despite its unevenness."

Who wrote it?

Lincoln Michel is a founding editor of Gigantic, and an online editor for Electric Literature. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, NOON and BOMB. This is his first short story collection.

Who will read it?

Those interested in classic writers of uncanny stories, such as Flannery O’Connor. Those interested in fresh, experimental fiction.

Opening lines:

“Time passes unexpectedly or, perhaps, inexactly at the school.”

Notable passage:

“How we ended up in those backwoods hills was Iris said we needed to 'get a little air,' and Dolan added 'country air!' and that was that. Iris was my lover, and Dolan was her roommate I’d never liked. All of us were alive, at that point.”

Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel
Coffee House, $16.95
Published October 13, 2015


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