Review: Nick Sweeney on Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel


Short story collections, especially those containing a multitude of stories, are difficult to gauge. How much constitutes a good or even great collection? Can one or two pieces bring all that good vibe down? Do we feel anything connecting all these pieces together? In Lincoln Michel’s debut collection, Upright Beasts, we find answers to all of those questions and then some. Make no mistake; this title could not be more fitting if it tried. Within this collection, twenty-one stories wait to be explored and discovered, analyzed and enjoyed. Here be monsters.

Like a novel, a short story collection can live or die within its first few pages, and this collection sets a significantly high standard. Michel throws all his tools and techniques and the kitchen sink in it, and the reader will appreciate it. There is no hiding, no teasing. He, like the metaphorical and sometimes physical monsters within these pages, goes for the jugular quickly. “Our Education” reminds us of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, through the slow and gentle decent of humanity through the eyes of school children. The opening line sets the pace:

Time passes unexpectedly or, perhaps, inexactly at the school. It’s hard to remember what semester we’re in. Several of the clocks still operate, but none of them agree on the time. Construction paper murals obscure the windows. Consequently, the sun rises and falls in complete ignorance of those of us attending the school. Many of us participated in the decorations in some lost point of childhood. A few of us have dried glue under them.

Our narrator must figure out the meaning of the changing world around him, both in and out of the safety of the school he lives in. We are met with characters with questions and characters who continue the progress of humanity by means of power and control. Things change and at the same time, they don’t. “Our Education” is a terrific indicator of the type of story you should expect within this collection. Put on your seatbelt, it’s a ride towards Lovecraftian country houses and Long Island-like suburbia, to places we know and love and places we dare not think of.

Connected themes in short story rarely work, and in this case, one questions if it was even intentional to title this collection Upright Beasts. Every story discusses the theme of what a monster really is. Not the kind in Stephen King or the kind that live under our bed, rather, the kind that we see in the reflection of our mirrors. We are capable of terrible things, some intentional and some decisions allow us to be so. “Our New Neighborhood” opens with a line that many have seen unravel elsewhere: “When the incidents start, my husband decides that what our neighborhood needs is a neighborhood watch.” Neighborhood stories frighten me the most for their sincere truthfulness. “Almost Recess” leads you with one horror and ends with the complete opposite: “The children erect a gallows out of desks, cardboard, and ribbon. A child is hanged and then buried in the locker room under a pile of backpacks. The child is made to remain there, held down by two of the larger boys if necessary, for at least thirty seconds.” This is but a few of the tales Michel weaves; some of these stories will ignite your imagination, while others will force you to retreat from the real world temporarily. There are children unsupervised, backwoods alien farms, there are disappointments and bad decisions. Sometimes, we have to be the monster, and sometimes we have no control over it. Over and over again, in so many artfully intricate ways, Michel shows us just that.

As mentioned earlier, sometimes the monsters are closer to home, even when we have to make our imaginations work. There are stories that are about the human condition, the very basic fabric of who and what we are. As sophisticated and advanced as we are, it’s easy to forget what can happen once order and decency take a three-week vacation. “Our Education” consists of children thinking for themselves without the guidance of parents. “Everybody Who’s Anybody” is as much about doubles as it is thirsting for something or someone. “My Life in the Bellies of Beasts” is about the safety and security we only can attain at the beginning of our lives. “Colony” will frighten readers, especially those who write, for they face a particular monster on a daily basis, one that wins more than it loses. Every single one of these stories, and others elsewhere in the collection, take you into a detailed world, sometimes close and sometimes far from that of our own, and allows you to see the darkness firsthand. We have the honor of being in control of much of our actions, and that can be a scary prospect once you realize it; Lincoln Michel expedites that process rather quickly.

Upright Beasts is a collection that makes you look around corners and think deeper about simple conversations. It makes you wonder; it makes you reflect. For all of the elements in this collection that make this fiction, there is an absolutely stunning image of what it’s like to be human, to live life and allow it to slip away, as Michel says: “Death, in all its myriad incarnations, was, as always, right around the corner.” There is only one gear to read this story, hurried and all-consuming. The idea of bending genre is not new, and Upright Beasts adds to that momentum, but it brings it further; it’s not just about how frighteningly close a writer can bring us to our imagination, it’s how close he can bring us to our reality.

Here be monsters; here be ourselves.

Upright Beasts, by Lincoln Michel. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Coffee House Press, October 2015. 224 pages. $16.95, paper.

Nick Sweeney lives in Lindenhurst, New York. He is allergic to dogs and chocolate and yes, he knows how terrible it must be.

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