by Lincoln Michel
…Who gives a damn about gender dynamics when this guy has been casually kicking back in a bear’s stomach for half his life?…
The protagonists of the first three tales from Lincoln Michel’s Upright Beasts short story collection are men. The fourth consists of a dialogue between two young girls, the sixth, a female school teacher and the seventh, a pregnant house wife.
This seemingly arbitrary gender changeover from story to story- often seen as the mark of a talented writer- is managed flawlessly on the part of Michel. Trying to step into the shoes of our other halves is always a challenging task and the critique ‘his female characters are terribly weak’ or ‘she simply cannot write convincingly as a man’ are rather too common.
However, whilst I will definitely move on to assert that Michel is, indeed, a talented writer, he will need to write more to convince us that this talent can be accredited to his understanding of the female psyche. From this publication, I’m more inclined to think that his female leads manage to blend so seamlessly into the narrative simply because Michel’s narratives are so wonderfully bizarre that the reader is rather distracted. The slightest abnormality where female characterisation is concerned would go completely unnoticed in amongst the zombies, pulsating aliens, 2-dimensional moon beings and, in one story, a boy who lives in the bellies of various wild animals.
Who gives a damn about gender dynamics when this guy has been casually kicking back in a bear’s stomach for half his life?
This level of absurdity is really what makes Upright Beasts very special. I have a weakness for the bizarre, I must admit. So when the drunkard in the story ‘Lawn Dad’ spent the summer banished to the garden and “grew softer and greener until [he] split apart into the lawn” I was ecstatic. I raise my glass to Lincoln Michel for pure imagination.
Of course, such absurdity requires delicacy and, often, a counter-balancing sense of irony. It is an awkward compromise, but necessary to ensure that larger-than-life events don’t diminish the characters, dialogue and style. For the most part, it is a balancing act that Lincoln Michel manages rather well. Very well, in fact. His imagination, dark sense of humour and penchant for the other-worldly makes his writing style incredibly well-suited to the short story genre. The reader is thrown into another world with little to no explanation as to why things are the way they are, and Michel revels in this opacity. With no need to contemplate back-story and character development (which so often fall flat where science fiction is concerned), this author seems in his prime.
Essentially, I really enjoyed this publication. Fantasy has an important, potentially underrated, role to play in all fiction and it was refreshing to read something completely off the wall. I must stress, however, that these stories might appeal most to somebody to whom sci-fi and horror movies particularly appeal (…I have ordered a copy for my brother, who adores both). The subject matter is at times amusing and at other times thoughtful, but, for the most part, it is rather dark. In ‘Halfway Home to Somewhere Else’ Michel tells the story of a couple with a baby who stop off at a flooded quarry that the protagonist remembers visiting in his youth. From the moment the couple sat down at the edge, baby perched on a boulder between them, I practically broke into a sweat contemplating what was going to befall this child. Would she accidentally topple over the 30-foot cliff? Would she be thrown? Stolen whilst her parents took a swim?
I have no children. My concern for this fictional child stemmed from the fact that, having already read almost half of the book, I was well aware that any one of these scenarios was not only possible, but positively likely. Such is Lincoln Michel’s style.
Spoiler alert: the baby is not thrown from a cliff. In fact, everybody goes home in one piece, which means that ‘Halfway Home to Somewhere Else’ is actually just a really, really good read, where we are left nervily waiting for something that never materialises. It’s a great build.
And gruesome anticipation is not all that Upright Beasts has to offer. One of the most powerful stories is ‘The Room Inside my Father’s Room’. Here, the youngest member of the family finally breaks out of his room into his father’s (far larger) neighbouring chamber in order to bitterly complain about how little space he’d been granted. Moving back generation to generation, his grandfather’s room larger and his great-grandfather’s room larger again, Michel explores a new generation’s perspective with this short, yet fabulously fantastical tale.
I’m intrigued as to whether Lincoln Michel will be able to expand into another genre or style with quite such finesse, but this publication is what it is: a fun and surprisingly thought-provoking read. And ultimately, to those who, like me, enjoy an absurd storyline (as well as to those who, like my brother, enjoy a gross monster or two) Upright Beasts will not be a disappointment.