I don't know. Will you love these stories? It's possible. Have you ever worried about being swallowed by a clever fox, or wondered, at odd moments, what the inside of a fox's belly might sound like if said fox howled its lullabies to a swallowed child? Have you ever felt your school resembled a dystopia? Has your life ever swerved into the haunted past in search of some lost forward momentum? Do you like your literary realism cut with fantastic weirdness? Your lattices of surrealism twined 'round marriage plots both ecstatic and distraught?
These and other such curious realities reside in Upright Beasts, Lincoln Michel's debut collection of short stories. Michel, the co-founder and co-editor of Gigantic Magazine and Editor-in-Chief of Electric Literature online, has been praised by Kelly Link for his mix of the surreal and unreal. Of late, his work has appeared all over the place: Weird Fiction Review, Vice, Granta, Unstuck, Tin House, Fairy Tale Review, Oxford American. He also co-edited with Nadxieli Nieto an anthology, Gigantic Worlds, which featured fifty-one pieces of flash science fiction from fifty-one different authors.
The stories in Upright Beasts, much like their author, roam free across the literary plains, paying little heed to the fences others have seen fit to construct between style or genre. In some stories, such as "Filling Pools" or "Halfway Home to Somewhere Else," Michel stalks through straight-up, midwest realism, presenting characters in realistic settings dealing with realistic problems such as broken marriages and broken skulls. In others, he drives slow through towns vanishing beneath a thick tangle of invasive surrealism. In "Lawn Dad," a father falls drunk in his front yard and slowly puts down literal roots, becoming one with his lawn. In "Our Education," children trapped in a school bereft of adults soon question whether such things as teachers ever really existed and argue over the pros and cons of finishing their homework. The final image is that of a boy on his knees, handing in his finished essay to the recently excavated teacher's lounge—which, it turns out, possesses little in the way of adult supervision and much in the way of a deep, dark, and unknowable abyss.
Michel has written that he believes stories thrive on chaos, and that he, for the most part, wrote the stories in Upright Beasts in stolen pockets of time: breaks in a crowded café or extended commutes on broken-down subways. You feel this in Michel's sentences, which have a tendency to zig where you expect them to zag, and zag where you expect them to conduct themselves like normal people and avoid putting down literal roots in the front yard. Here, for example, is a sentence from the story "River Trick":
One by one the people on the bridge hurtle into the cold waters, their arms wrapped around microwaves and cordless vacuums. (p. 42)
The stories' structures contain elements of chaos as well, feeling very often like snatches of conversation overheard at a party populated by people suffering various sorts of brilliant despair. They begin without introduction and have a tendency to end before you expect, characters still trapped, still wandering, the lucky few granted a glimpse into the nature of the beast. If you read for plot, or for resolution, this may not be the book for you. If sometimes you sit and think about "The School" by Donald Barthelme and wish more stories were like that, then this is probably the book you've been waiting for.
Through all the chaos collected in Upright Beasts, a unifying theme emerges. Michel begins the story "Some Notes On My Brother's Brief Travels" with three words: "I don't know" (p. 109). And, again and again, stories here wrestle with the limits of knowledge—about ourselves, our relationships, our society, and our universe. The narrator in "Some Notes . . . " struggles to understand why his brother bolted for the hills of Colorado. In "Our Education," that boy struggles with the endless emptiness at the heart of learning. And yet, this absence does not always manifest as terror. In some stories, like "Hike," we see a character choose unknowing because, well, what's the point anymore, really:
It was another in an unending succession of situations in which she had no interest in learning what it was she was required to do. (p. 93)
What kept me reading, often, was to see how many different ways Michel could spin the truth of our inability to escape the mystery of ourselves: "I don't know" as defeat; "I don't know" as indignant defense; "I don't know" as fire-fist of rage. "I don't know" as starry-eyed wonder, as miraculous despair.
In perhaps my favorite story in this collection, "My Life in the Bellies of Beasts," Michel delivers a fable of deep, existential terror that manages, also, to be deeply romantic. Much like Barthelme's "The School," it is a story of boldly rising action. A boy, born prematurely, grows into a man within the confines of successive bellies belonging to beasts of increasing size. First, a fox, and then a mastiff, and then a grizzly bear, and so on, and so forth. Inside the mastiff, his chin resting on the dog's large tongue, he meets a girl who asks what he's doing down there.
"I live down here," I said, ashamed.
"Well, come on out!"
She laughed, but I was afraid and slid back down into the guts. I didn't think a boy who had lived his life in the bellies of beasts was worthy of her. (p. 143)
At the end of the man's journey, within the belly of a whale—perhaps the most over-booked belly in the history of literature—the girl returns to rescue him, and she succeeds, breaking the pattern of the boy's shame. And, they're happy. He's calm. There is no more shame. And we could end there. That would be good. Love breaks the pattern. Love sets us free. Michel goes further, though. He follows the logic of his story and returns, as he does often in these stories, to the incomprehensible beast whose belly waits for us all.
Yet despite all my happiness, life was uneasy for me on the outside. Often at night I would wake up in a sweat, my body encased in the tight sheets of our little bed in a cold apartment in a city surrounded by the warm sea. I felt small and alone in that dark room. I could feel the breath of my wife on my neck, but it felt like the breath of some unstoppable and infinitely large beast, the one waiting for the day that it would swallow me inside the blackness of its belly forever. (p. 145)
Chris Kammerud is a graduate of the 2012 Clarion Writers' Workshop at UCSD. Presently, he's revising a novel concerning love, revolution, and virtual K-Pop idols. Past work has appeared in The Interstitial Arts Online Annex, Fiction Weekly, and Strange Horizons. He lives in Ho Chi Minh City. For more, visit his blog, or follow him on Twitter.