(Coffee House Press, 2015)
Lincoln Michel has brought off a worthy debut in Upright Beasts, a rowdy klatch of stories with a number of winners. The fictions leave their most beautiful bruises about halfway through, as the author swings without a hitch from the relative realism of the section titled “North American Mammals” to the stories collected under “Familiar Creatures,” each of them a wild narrative hair. The latter mode, the unhinged, proves more successful more often. In my copy of Beasts, I’ve double-starred such prodigies as “Lawn Dad,” a short, scary fairytale that recalls, at the end, Un Chien Andalou. But then again, “Some Notes on My Brother’s Brief Travels,” a lot longer overall as well as in its title, stands out among the “Mammals” group for its matter-of-fact quashing of young men’s dreams. Its final lines deliver a Carveresque pang, as the narrator brother confides he still nurses hopes that he’ll be “one of the ones who pops out of the rut.”
In short, I find plenty to applaud in Michel’s initial effort. The accomplishment seems all the more impressive when you consider that this still-young author has his hands full with editing chores for both Electric Literature and Gigantic. Still, I can’t go on without unleashing the curmudgeon. I can’t ignore how much of the effect here depends on playing the faux-naïf.
You don’t need to check your French vocabulaire. The faux-naïf, IRL, holds back as if unschooled so as to let others reveal themselves. The ploy’s generally used to manipulate—and that’s the appeal for a fiction writer. Stephen King, to choose a glaring example, has built a career on the corpses of those he allowed enough rope to hang themselves. As King hides in the shadows, adjusting the lights, his characters prove themselves fatally naïf. Nothing wrong with that, in itself, nothing far finer authors haven’t turned to their advantage, but in Upright Beasts the device gears up unrelentingly. Again and again, both what’s thought and what’s said emphasize the silliness, the lame-brain limits, of the key players.
In one of the first stories, “The River Trick,” we get these straight-faced arguments against urban living:
“We hear people in the city do weird things in bed,” they say.
“We hear they’re perverts, every last one.”
“We hear of acts that aren’t fit to speak about in proper company.”
Obviously Michel is going for humor, and in the narrator’s reply as well: “Well, [. . .] it’s a crazy world every which way you look at it.” Nonetheless, the joke’s too often the same, dependent on a sneering distance between the author and his creations. Then in one of the final Beasts, set amid zombies on the rampage, a few attractive young people take off to a cabin in the woods, having “cleared up some time to celebrate before real life really took over.” Yes, “really” on top of “real,” and the party matters more than the apocalypse. What’s more, this comes in the exposition, rather than out of some character’s mouth. Shortly thereafter, we hear from the prettiest girl of the bunch, dismissing the danger of a zombie bite: “Don’t be dramatic [. . .] I have this amazing balm made with aloe and goji berries that can, no joke, cure anything.”
Off by itself, again, the line can fetch a laugh. The joke turns stale, however, when the woods are full of feebs. Nor is humor the only element damaged. At times the flat style will camouflage fierce hurts, à la Carver, but at others it just lies there: “You couldn’t see [the city] from my office window, on account of all the tall buildings. The buildings were much shorter in my borough.” So too, many stories feature romance, but whether the hookup is troubled or sweet, description shies away from its physical expression. We get a close-up of a zombie bite, but we never taste a kiss, or suffer as a caress gets shrugged off. Such close attention would require a more mature style than the pretense of naïveté allows, and were I to go whole-hog curmudgeon, to get all Allan Bloom, here, I’d gripe about other young Americans who embrace the same pretense. Too many, I’d grumble, set up straw men just to knock them down, as if that were all it took to dramatize the failure of living-dead late capitalism.
But no. Much as the rant might tempt me, neither Michel nor his press, Coffee House, deserves it. The Minneapolis publisher, in fact, has brought out fine recent fiction that works the other side of the aesthetic street, like J. M. Ledgard’s dead serious Submergence. As for Upright Beasts, it’s more appropriate to let the kid off with a warning. Regarding “River Trick,” for instance, he could’ve done without the triple cliché-burger, but nevertheless he brought off a poignant conclusion. In the mirror of a new love affair, the gee-whiz poser startles himself; he glimpses the need to grow.
Likewise praiseworthy is the fiction’s premise, namely, an apartment complex for which the selling point is that tenants get to attempt suicide, again and again. The super arranges the appointments, and the rescues. Inventions like that present Michel at his best, and render Donald Barthelme, among writers of the previous generation, a more useful comparison than Carver. As in Barthelme, ordinary humanity rears up out of nowhere, setting unexpected limits on playtime. Before a story hits those limits, it may reverse reality wittily, so that a nature hike becomes “like walking through sets of different Hollywood films.” Alternatively, it may take off into engaging phantasmagoria. “My Life in the Bellies of Beasts,” for instance, delivers just what it promises, in another gem from the “Familiar Creatures” section. Still, the various big fish who house the protagonist of “Bellies” aren’t his true home; rather, this faux-naïf dwells in fable, ultimately—and those always come with a moral.