A third of the way into Lincoln Michel’s imaginative debut collection, I was reminded of a phrase Lorin Stein once used to describe the work Donald Antrim, in comparing his work to that of John Cheever: “plausible magic.” The phrase suggests that an unbelievable—possibly surreal—scenario can arise from “believable” character action and reasonable narrative means. Plausible magic is ordinary life rendered strange through the author’s vision. A Venn diagram of those writers (along with the later, enigmatic work of Kazuo Ishiguro) might provide a contextual starter set for Lincoln Michel, whose stories are strikingly assured in their strange, sublime originality.
Let me just say this: I dug this collection. A lot.
In Upright Beasts, beasts abound. The beasts are both literal (the creature of “Dark Air”) and figurative (the beast lurking inside Jimmy of “Little Girls by the Side of the Pool”). Yet even Michel’s most fantastic conceits are anchored by his measured, matter-of-fact prose. “My various neighbors try to kill themselves once a month. They’re not very good at it,” concedes the weary, suicide-thwarting apartment manager in the riotous, deeply unsettling “The River Trick.”
Unsettling is a word I’ve wanted to use several times already, but kept avoiding, waiting for the right moment—which, I guess, is now. So I’ll say it again: Upright Beasts is deeply unsettling. A continual sense of dread, at various levels of perceptibility, pervades each of its 25 stories—most so in the quieter, seemingly uneventful stories. They may move along with a straightforward feel, until they begin to subtly lop, distort, and shift (think of a Steve Reich tape-loop composition); and the cumulative effect leaves you either heartbroken or cracking with laughter. Soon it all fades and you’re checking the locks on your doors and windows.
Twice, to be safe.
United by beasts, the collection is also united by voice and tone. Most of the stories employ a cool, recursive, possibly depressed narrator, someone who successfully manages to be playful and deadpan while highlighting the alienations of modern life:
My company occupied four floors of the building, but they weren’t consecutive. Between the lowest floor we owned and the third-highest floor we owned, there was a snack company. I had been working at my company for some time. I now worked on the top floor of the floors we owned, but I had worked on the lowest floor, and also the floor above the snack company. I had never worked on the floor that was two floors above the snack company and one floor below my current floor.
Going back to the idea of “plausible magic,” the fantastic elements in Upright Beasts are built from one logical step to the next—micro-jumps of suspended belief. In “Colony,” for example, a story about an artistic retreat begins a steady morph into disorientation, with its insects and night gatherings. Michel does this in one story after the next, until he has conjured a whole world. This new world is familiar, but there’s something off about it too. Michel’s work exists between realism and magical realism
The snack-break Lord of the Flies setup of “Our Education,” which opens the collection, subverts our expectations of genre in a bold way. It’s a story that generates the feel of dystopia by its restraint—withholding most of the exposition that would explain the bizarre goings-on of its school with students but no teachers. But what Michel creates with its lack of specificity is more powerful than a definitive “answer.” What results is sly, obscure, and beyond terrific.
The first half of Upright Beasts feels far more stacked than the second half. Not to say the second half doesn’t have its own standouts (“Colony” is one of the finer stories in the collection), but its first two sections, “Upright Beasts” and “North American Mammals,” contain a megadose of bonafide classics; some of the more exciting, unique stories I’ve read in a long while. I couldn’t help but feel the subsequent sections sag a bit after the promise of the first. They feel, in comparison, less realized, less cathartic, though still exciting in their loose whimsy. “The Soldier” is a flashy gem. It takes guts and skill to pull off a story involving a soldier and a dog that doesn’t succumb to easy sentimentalism. I bet Tobias Wolff could (maybe he has—has he?) pull it off, but now so has Lincoln Michel.
On the basis of one collection, Michel has already proven himself a master of ellipsis and restraint. In Upright Beasts, the city is “the city,” and the country is “the country.” We’re rarely given more than these mundane placeholders—hints, that signify the familiar places of our lives, but leave room for our imaginations to fill out the rest. We bring our own unease that deepens each story. It’s Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory—only the water is murky, menacing, infested with sea-monsters. Because Michel knows that the greatest beast is the imagination. Within us lies our own beast— ready to scare and astound.
David Byron Queen grew up in Northeast Ohio. Since graduating from The New School, he has worked as a dishwasher on a reality cooking show, a copywriter, and a script reader in Hollywood. His work is forthcoming in NANO Fiction, and has also appeared in Everyday Genius, and Lumina Online. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.