‘Upright Beasts’ Tries to Stand, Stumbles

"Upright Beasts" by Lincoln Michel (Coffee House Press)

Grotesque sex, an apartment filled with suicidal screams, schoolchildren hanging one another. If one prefers to stay within the bounds of the everyday, do to Lincoln Michel’s collection of short stories what any sensible person would a blood-spitting, brain-eating monster: Turn away and run. “Upright Beasts” is not for the faint of heart; Michel’s language drips with the eeriness of cold-blooded murder; each story casts a fluorescent light upon the dissolution of human companionship, the disintegration of community, and decomposition of self. However, this effect is severely diminished by his dry storytelling. His stories, while each momentarily interesting as single pieces, are repetitive as a whole. They bleed into one another with each turn of the page, rendering the overall work blurred and amorphous.

One of the most problematic elements of the book is apparent at first glance: its bizarre thematic structure. An assemblage of individual apologues, “Upright Beasts” is already strange in that it lacks a physical, geographical, or otherwise tangible unifying quality. The book is broken into four parts—“Upright Beasts,” “North American Mammals,” “Familiar Creatures” and “Megafauna,” titles that seem indistinguishable in the context of the general theme of bestiality, and therefore needlessly cryptic. Each section in turn contains anywhere from three to eight short stories and each of these stories varies in length—some are as short as two pages while others are as long as 15. This structure is mirrored by Michel’s narrative layering. As the book progresses, certain key phrases and ideas—watchful eyes, abandoned homes, characters as deformed as the monsters’ bodies which they inhabit—recur to the point of impotence. While initially interesting by virtue of shock value, the text loses its sickly charm by the time it reaches “Things Left Outside,” a later story; a desensitizing effect sets in after one to0 many cheating spouses and murderous plans. The very nature of Michel’s repetition works against him as it dulls the sustainment of emotional impact.

This lack of distinction between pieces also manifests itself in Michel’s characterization—none of the crafted identities are particularly memorable, and each storyline glides past the preceding one like water sliding past itself. John Does and dictators alike speak in the same listless, unwavering tone as they [a) suspect their wives or b) murder their neighbors or c) fall victim to a bloodthirsty mob. Michel’s descriptions of characters seem deliberately unembellished, slicing to the meat of each situation, yet the monotonous violence of this technique renders character identities unmemorable among stories. Unlike a well-planned book, the collection reads as scattered, without the grounding roots of character development or inter-story relations.

None of this is to discount each story’s standalone intrigue. Thanks in large part to the author’s generous use of graveyard humor, serious situations are passed off as silly and difficult questions are raised in casual conversation, effectively dissolving boundaries between human entities and their human and non-human surroundings. This breaking—or rather breakdown—of physical, societal, and internal relations seems to be of primary importance in “Upright Beasts.” Physically, children act like adults in real-life games of hangman; socially, politicians literally buy favors with gold keys; emotionally, a person finds himself committing wicked acts in the name of love and artificial intelligence. Thus children play-act as adults, adults imitate children, neighbors become enemies, enemies stay neighbors; in this manner, Michel’s stories are loosely related by their unsettling, chaotic mutations of a technologized, mechanized world where, hypothetically, order should reign. Occasionally, Michel’s matter-of-fact storytelling style aids him in capturing a reader’s fleeting attention. Surprisingly insightful thoughts like “we’d been together for long enough it felt like nothing at all” spring from the mouths of the aforementioned two-dimensional, dull characters. Embedded in the larger context of obscure phrases, these short statements and certain individual stories demand a second glance.

Ultimately, “Upright Beasts” can be reduced to the conundrum within its first story, “Our Education.” In the piece, children who have overthrown school authorities eventually forget that their teachers, school bus rides, and homework ever existed in the first place. Elements of the past are erased in the name of progress. Similarly, in Michel’s worlds, while greater society, communities, and people themselves flirt with misguided notions of success and power, they forget to confront what he portrays as the more important questions: What is companionship? What constitutes a community? How do humans understand and fail to understand themselves? Instead of answering directly, Michel creatively presents his views—albeit in overly disconnected, redundant fashion with stories are better standalone than lumped together—through people, animals, and actions so distorted that they inevitably expose the insensibility of social constructs by their contrast with known reality. By the end of “Upright Beasts,” however, Michel’s writing stumbles over its own overarching questions of identity and relationship, never quite finding the balance to stand.