Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel
Coffee House Press. 2015
Blurbs of Lincoln Michel’s Upright Beasts include the words “haunting” and “sinister.” His stories indeed have dark underpinnings, yet I finished this collection feeling more comforted than disturbed. That’s how I often feel when I finish a well-written book, no matter how many unhappy endings it contains.
Michel provides a great range of stories: from schools-made-dystopias to Virginia deer to cloned lovers. The collection is divided into four sections, each of which contains its own subject or approach. The first section presents characters learning about strange, distinct worlds. In one, a boy navigates that brutal school. In another, a man with little space discovers that his room is a bit piece of his father’s room, which is a bit piece of his grandfather’s room, ad infinitum. The second section has segregated the most realistic and traditional of Michel’s stories. The best of these is “The Deer in Virginia,” which juxtaposes two stories of killed deer. The third section describes a number of fantastic lives: the daily life of a dictator’s bodyguard, the maturation of a man inside the bellies of several animals. The fourth most fulfills Michel’s promise as a genre-bending writer. In it he plays around with distorted histories, alien invasions, and zombie attacks.
No matter the story, subject, or section, Michel offers a consistently high quality of sentence. Consider this pair from “The Deer in Virginia”: The storm was starting to peter out. We emerged from the shade of highway trees into fields of wheat and bright sun that, for a brief second, made everything look as if it was wrapped in cellophane.” The “r” sounds in the first sentence are echoed in various words throughout the second. Notice also how the well-known image of post-rain sky is made new and valuable by the cellophane metaphor. The inconsequential metaphor is rendered interesting thereby.
In that story and others in the realistic “North American Mammals” section, readers feel the old pleasure of action rising toward climax, of a protagonist searching for light in a world of muck. Usually that protagonist is a mid-to-late twenty-something guy with love problems. The narrator of “The Deer in Virginia” directly addresses an ex, and the piece as a whole illustrates his disillusionment following their relationship’s end. This piece and its companions could have been written last year or any year of the nineties. They are full of that grunge-era angst. Some of them could have been written before Nirvana’s rise. “Filling Pools,” about a jilted drunk who unwittingly kidnaps a kid en route to confronting his ex-wife, has a very Carver-ish feel.
Those stories, set in contrast with the rest of the book, lay bare the basic problem with traditional realism. The more a writer adheres to its conventions and fulfills its demands, the less chance he has to distinguish his work. This is especially true in North America, where we still feel Carver’s long shadow and where Alice Munro remains our most celebrated short story writer. I should reiterate that Michel’s realistic stories are well done, but they are not memorable.
Much more interesting are tales like “Getting There Nonetheless.” The set-up sounds like a Walking Dead episode crossed with any Friday the 13th movie: two attractive couples gather at a family cabin to celebrate a pregnancy when zombies attack. The story focuses on Tim, a failed novelist, and his girlfriend Tracy, who everybody thinks should be his fiancée by now. They have real doubts about the relationship, especially since their engaged and reproducing friends seem so happy. The characters sound as though they belong in one of the realistic stories in “North American Mammals.” Here’s the pleasant surprise: when Michel sticks these stale figures into a stale horror scenario, he freshens the possibilities. So when Tim is at last zombified and banging away at the door, Tracy remembers his old sweetness and her callousness toward him. In another story, her memories might have prompted a softening of her heart, but Tim is a zombie. Five days later, she takes up a weapon to kill him.
The horror elements also push Michel to give us more than these characters and their feelings. In fact, some of the story’s best passages occur when the focus is lifted from relationship trouble and cast onto the wide deadly world: “The undead continued to come and go. Some stumbled to the north and others ambled toward the south. Tracy thought they were different ones each time, until she saw the man who’d ripped up their garden crawling across the backyard. He was missing a foot, part of his rib cage, and both eyes, but the dried-up tomato vines were still wrapped around his leg.” Self-absorption is impossible with zombies bearing down.
It may be no surprise, then, that my favorite of Michel’s stories are those in which couples are moved to the background or discarded altogether. In “Lawn Dad,” a dad becomes a lawn in a lovely Ovidian metamorphosis. In “What We Have Surmised about the John Adams Incarnation,” an historian of a future civilization pieces together the times and role of our second president. As the ideas grow more playful, so do the sentences: “He appears to have originally been conceived as a familiar or minion of George Washington, the first of the hundred tyrants that are said to have rule the country until its infamous, self-inflicted demise.” Then there is “A Note on the Type,” not a listed story but an ingenious take on a page that 99.9% of readers never even skim. Here Michel fictionalizes the history of a typeface. It becomes, in his hands, a story of professional and romantic jealousy which leads to a peculiar revenge. In these pieces Michel favors the interesting idea rather than the predictable character or plot development, and he finds a thing more purely his own.
And that, finally, is what I want. Many writers can show us the known aches in the known ways. I favor those who present new weirdness. Michel does a little of both in this collection. It may be read as the record of a talented writer learning the old procedures before bending them to new purposes.