Whether they take place in an apocalypse, the hypothetical universe of a fairy tale, or the author’s home state of Virginia, the stories in Lincoln Michel’s debut collection Upright Beasts place their characters in situations where conventional rules and habits can no longer help them.
“Our Education” is set in a school from which the teachers have mysteriously disappeared. A student clique has consolidated power like a militia and is denying that the teachers ever even existed. In “Our New Neighborhood,” a pregnant wife feels neglected by her husband as he devotes his energies to an increasingly Orwellian neighborhood watch program. In “My Life in the Bellies of Beasts,” a man recalls being swallowed by a fox soon after birth, only for that fox to be swallowed by a hound, which was swallowed by a bear, and so on.
These stories are absurd, but subtly so. They never slap the reader in the face and yell Look how crazy this is! Instead, they recount the bizarre changes taking place as most people would recount the changes of a normal human life. Michel’s characters are not stranded astronauts in a sci-fi epic but immigrants in a new country, children on the verge of adulthood. Here’s the boy in the bellies of beasts recalling life in a bear:
When I tried to escape the bear, she grew angry and climbed up a tall tree. I was almost a teenager now, and life felt like a rotten trap. Everything that seemed sweet contained hidden thorns. If I had fresh honey in my grasp, it was followed by the painful sting of swallowed bees.
The line about life feeling like a rotten trap is universal; the detail about swallowed bees brings us back into the particular.
Even in the more realistic stories, beasts linger just underneath pretenses of civilization. In “Some Notes on My Brother’s Brief Travels,” a reflection on two brothers’ relationship during the early years of the recession, a traveler imagines a highway McDonald’s as an oasis in the wilderness: “You could imagine wild beasts romancing the edge of the forest, held back by fear of the torch-like M.”
My favorite story here, “The Room Inside My Father’s Room,” reads like a fable. A boy feels that he’s grown too big for his room, and complains to his father, who lives in a slightly bigger room. After his father laughs him off, the boy continues his appeals all the way up to his great-grandfather (who lives in the largest room of all), only to be told, “Every young’un thinks they’re a rebel. But we can only build what we know, and from the space we have.”
In this story, fewer than five pages long, Michel presents a perfect allegory of the infiniteness of generational squabbles. It’s just one of many treats in this diverse, wonderful collection.
Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel. Published in October by Coffeehouse Press. 224 pages. $16.95
Follow me on twitter @RNaokiOBryan