Lincoln Michel: Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press 2015)

For the abyss. Thanks for always gazing back.

~~Upright Beasts dedication

“The guy’s crazy” can mean a lot of things. There’s cross-the-street-to-avoid-him crazy, and there’s courage-to-go-there / think-outside-the-box creativity. So let’s be specific: when I say Lincoln Michel is crazy, I mean the second kind. Mostly. Because there’s also some very grim stuff here. Stuff from the abyss.

I put this book on my TBR list about three years ago, when I read “If It Were Anyone Else” in the 2015 Pushcart anthology. I struggled with it, until I gave up, at which point it was no struggle at all (the main reason I write all these posts is so I can look back back three years later and know exactly what I was thinking; it sure isn’t for fame and fortune). I never did figure out exactly what was going on, but that doesn’t always have to be the point of reading, does it? Emily dwelt in possibility; so can I.Turns out, Michel’s ok with that:

I’m a big fan of mystery and ambiguity in writing. I don’t think that writing should be a mystery, but rather open the mysterious inside you. Which is to say, I’m not as much of a fan of “puzzle” fiction that you are supposed to solve (unless it’s a good mystery novel) and more of a fan of work that’s dreamy, evocative, and can be read in different ways.

Reddit AMA

Most of the stories are short, four to six pages; some are barely two, a few are much longer. The book is divided into four named sections; Michel paid a lot of attention to the organization, but stops short of explaining it. While I can see hints of patterns – the first section is surreal and very flash-like in tone if not length, the second section is more about realism, the last are longer stories – that doesn’t quite work for all of them. But I learned my lesson three years ago; I’m not going to beat myself up for not figuring it out.

“The River Trick” is my emotionally-favorite story.

One by one the people on the bridge hurtle into the cold waters, their arms wrapped around microwaves and cordless vacuums. They fall straighter than I ever though possible.
“Will there be love?”
“That I can’t promise,” I say, “but we can try to fight our way through it together.”
And perhaps seconds later, the people come rocketing back to the surface, having abandoned their appliances. They bob and gasp. And maybe they will have found something down there while starving for air. On the surface, they will seek each other out and cling tightly, saying, “This is what I need. This is what I’ve been waiting for.”
I’m not sure. Patricia and I have walked too far away to see.

The narrator’s job is showing up just in time to save people from pre-arranged suicide attempts. The thematic emphasis on the need for connecting brought to mind the Australian David Brooks’ story “Blue” – still on any top-five-flashes list I would make – though it’s completely different in tone. It’s a theme that’s been front and center for me this summer: I moved in July, and I keep saying I feel so much more open and connected in my new place, thanks to huge windows overlooking both busy streets and distant waters. My sense of well-being has greatly improved as a result, even though it’s all illusory. But what works, works.

But wait, there’s more to the story. At one point, the government, so alarmed by all these attempted (and, occasionally, accidentally successful) suicides, tries to connect people by projecting pictures on building walls, and by pouring a dye into the city river that turns it into a giant mood ring (I’m old enough to remember mood rings; are you?). That reminded me of something Facebook tried several years back (well after I’d left), before it went into the election-tampering-enablement business; didn’t they push posts that were upbeat, according to an algorithm, to make everyone happy to be on Facebook reading ads? I was happy to find Kyle Lucia Wu was thinking along the same lines when she interviewed Michel for The Rumpus. But it turns out the story was written before social media was really a big thing; AIM and ICQ were around, but they weren’t anywhere near as public as the current generation of apps.

The idiocy of government features into several other stories in the collection. In “The Mayor’s Plan”, the plan is to give keys to the city to pretty much anyone, causing a business boom and massive expansion. “I’m not sure if the keys are saving his job. I do know that everyone I meet seems angry.” Good thing they weren’t red hats.

And then continuing along the theme of government there’s my intellectually-favorite story, “What We Have Surmised About the John Adams Incarnation”: a historian/anthropologist of the future trying to make sense of the United States, and characterizing government as a pagan religion.

Long assumed to be a prince or demon of a lesser cult, we now know that John Adams was an important figure in the dominant United Statsian mythology. He appears to have originally been conceived as a familiar or minion of George Washington, the first of the hundred tyrants that are said to have ruled the country until its infamous, self-inflicted demise.

A hundred presidents, eh? Not sure we’re going to make it to 46 at this point, but this story was first published in 2012 when we never would have believed this is where we’d be. Turns out Michel wrote it for an election-year anthology about the Presidents; that anthology is available online.

Some of the creepiest stories feature kids. “Our Education” presents a school sans teachers, with just one student who still wants to complete his assignment:

I keep the paper folded in my back pocket. I don’t remember when I received it, but it’s my strongest proof that our teachers are coming back. The sheet of paper says:
In your own words, a) what is the goal of your education and b) how far are you, in your mind, to achieving this goal?

It gave me something of a Lord of the Flies meets the Inquisition vibe, but man, Halimah Marcus really nailed: “…in the absence of a hero, what once was a pillar, an organizing principle, is now a dark center — the vacuous teachers’ lounge.”

Even creepier is “Little Girls By the Side of the Pool” which should come with a trigger warning. But there’s something else, an amazing writing technique. Over the course of four pages, the little girls subtly grow up, but keep talking about the same thing (men’s hands – I told you, trigger warning) until it ends where it began and it all makes horrible sense.

The stories based in realism have their charm as well. “Some Notes on my Brother’s Brief Travels” takes us to a town where Foster is photographing old abandoned mines, maybe to put together an exhibition, maybe on his way to law school, but really, as his brother says, “he just wanted to pretend he was doing something with his life.” Don’t we all. There’s a guy in a chicken suit by the road most days, advertising a fast-food joint, and this leads us in two related directions: they can’t know who the guy in the chicken suit is – maybe he was sitting at the next table in the bar they just left – but everybody in town knows he dresses up like a chicken, and what’s it like to know everyone knows. The unknowability, right next to the familiarity you can’t escape. Neither really feels good, does it. It’s close to a slacker story – in fact, it is a slacker story – but it got to me anyway.

The Deer in Virginia” is a little gruesome, unless you’re a hunter in which case it’s probably milquetoast, but, like the girls at the pool, there’s a writing technique I admire. The first sentence starts with “Or take the day my father handed me his glass of lemonade and reached for the rifle.” It’s a pair of anecdotes about injuring deer, one on purpose, one accidentally. Either way, they’re just as injured. Then it ends with “So many days seem to end this way:….” and we’re back to this deep sense of being lost in an ongoing horror.

Like Michel says, “Ideally, I’d like my stories to go past the surface level of fun and weird and find their way, at least a little bit, into the more hidden parts of a reader’s mind.” Yeah, that they do. “The Room Inside My Father’s Room” was just a reasonably clever piece about a son’s room nested in his father’s room nested in his father’s room ad infinitum, until I got to the father’s line, “I did the best I could.” Then it turned into something else, a memoir, a therapy session, a spider hiding in a corner. Michel couldn’t have known that was the line my father trotted out every time a therapist put the two of us in a room together. He said it with an almost playful, self-depreciating self-depreciating shrug, less concerned that I was broken than that someone might think he was to blame (and, to be fair, he wasn’t, not more than five or ten percent, anyway). We’re all born in our parents’ rooms; it’s amazing how long it takes some of us to realize we can leave, we can bust out through a wall if that’s what it takes.

Then there’s the chef’s kiss on an already good read: “A Note on the Type”. I’d read a couple of pages before it occurred to me that Berdych probably isn’t an actual font. No, an actual printer’s note tells us the font is Weiss, and again, you never know what’s going on in this book. At least I wasn’t the only one fooled; Ilana Masad of The Collagist calls it a bonus track, and admits he got her, too.

I think it’s good it took me three years to get to this book. I’d like to think I can handle weirdness better, though handling it well is still a ways off. But see, even in his weirdest stories, the weirdness isn’t the point; it’s a path to the point. Or maybe a whole bunch of points. Good read.

Pushcart 2015: Lincoln Michel, “If It Were Anyone Else” from NOON, 2013

Photo/Illustration by Christopher Nesbet

Photo/Illustration by Christopher Nesbet

A bald man buddied up to me in the elevator, but he was no buddy of mine. He was much older than me, yet more or less exactly as tall, not counting my hair. He was holding a brown paper bag over his crotch.
“Does this go all the way to the roof?”
I made a big show of putting my newspaper down and turning my head.
“What the hell do I know about the roof? What would I do all the way up there?”
We stood still as we moved up the building.
“Just a friendly question.” He licked the bottom of his mustache with the tip of his tongue. “Hey, do you like candy beans?”
There was no one else on the elevator; then the doors opened, and a woman in a green pantsuit stepped in. She looked at us and moved to the other corner.
“Who doesn’t?” I was angry.
The man opened up his paper bag and dug around. He offered me an assortment in his palm. I took three of the red and four of the purple ones.

As I’ve said before, I don’t review books or stories; I don’t know how. I just react to them. That’s never been more the case than here, because I have no idea what’s going on with this one.

Is this a paean to one of those literary schools I’ve never studied, like post-structuralist neo-Freudian anti-colonialism? Or an Oulipo-style thing, where each word has a prime number of letters and an alternating parity number of vowels and it isn’t apparent how brilliant it is until the constraints are understood? Nah, too normal for that. There just seems to be a lot of important symbolism I’m missing.

Everything seems highly significant (holding the bag over his crotch?) and thoroughly extraneous (is a green pantsuit supposed to mean something?) at the same time. Height seems important; not just the height of the narrator and the bald man, but the heights of buildings and the levels of the floors on which the narrator has worked. Given the automatic association of height with superiority, I have to assume that isn’t an accident, that it has meaning in the context of the story. I even drew a diagram of the narrator’s building so I could understand the floors, since the wording seemed strangely convoluted (and something that’s simple, but is worded convolutedly, often means it’s important).

Once I start drawing floor plans, I know I’ve lost my way. So I did something a bit unusual: I sought professional help.

I noticed the story was nominated by Marc Watkins. I’d encountered his “Two Midnights in a Jug” several years ago in my first-ever Pushcart read, and he left a kind comment. So… I emailed him, and asked him why he nominated the story, what I was missing. The kind of email that gives the impression I’m a little bit nuts (as I am – but harmlessly so).

Turns out, sometimes you can depend on the kindness of strangers: Marc answered.

The story is an odd duck, but that is what drew me to it. The plot seems to spiral in and around itself, threatening to collapse under the weight of details that range from the mundane to the bizarrely specific. There’s a claustrophobia in it that reminds me of Kafka, yet the world never feels so alien that you lose connection with the narrator…. May be the story hints at something profound, or perhaps it is a stylistic exercise; regardless, the reason I liked the story and nominated it is because something moved me while reading it. The alienation (which seems to be a major theme in the narrative) was similar to how I feel in some of my writing, even though I grew up in the polar opposite environment than the world described in the story, I felt a connection. And in that small way I felt the narrator and myself were kindred.

~ Marc Watkins

I felt a little embarrassed. Here I’d just done a passionate defense of not barreling headlong through literature in search of The Meaning in my reaction to Sandra Lim’s “A Tab of Iron on the Tongue”. I’d just read, at my library’s quarterly poetry share, Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry“). And that’s exactly what I had done wrong: I was all focused on [ What does the mention of height mean? What does the bald man represent, why all the sweets – candy beans, a cookie store (what the heck are candy beans, and I’ve never seen a cookie store) – and what’s with the baseball game? A floor plan? That’s about as tie-that-sucker-to-a-chair as a reader can get ] instead of: trust the story to take you wherever it’s going. It’s a Pushcart story. It can be trusted.

I read it again, this time looking out the window to see Paris instead of non-stopping it to the Rome of Meaning. And by golly, it worked. No, I still don’t know what’s going on. But I just enjoyed the ride, and came across an obvious question: Why does the narrator bother with this guy at all? Why on earth would he get into a car with someone who appears to be a stalker, if a relatively harmless one? For that matter, why is the bald man pestering him?

He got up beside me at the counter.
“Hey, buddy, I got an idea. Do you like ball games?”
The woman at the counter was asking me about my order. Here eyeballs rolled in their sockets.
“Sure,” I said. “Everyone likes ball games.”
“Let’s go to the ball game. You and me. Just tow guys watching a ball game. What’s wrong with that? I got an extra ticket.”
I didn’t look back at the man, but I felt his hand pressing down on my shoulder. I could tell he was going to keep bothering me. He was like a lost mangy dog I’d accidentally fed scraps to.
“Just this once.” I sighed. “One ball game.”

What is the relationship?

That’s a lot more interesting than the significance of green, isn’t it.

Once I started down that road, a lot of things coalesced. Tiny details – the reciprocity of the hand on the shoulder. The two bystander women looking askance at the pair. The narrator treats the bald man like a kid at several points: the “Just this once” of the above passage, the scolding about the messy car. Maybe the bald man is some kind of “inner child” if you will – yes, he’s initially described as a lot older, but he’s acting like a kid, there’s a great deal of candy and cookies, and a baseball game, and wheedling.

Once I let myself got that far, I found the narrator’s hand on the bald man’s head to be sweetly tender, the bald man’s disappointment to be heartbreaking. You made your choice, pal. Tall buildings, not baseball games. And, until the bald man came by, you never even realized you’d made a choice.

We were getting somewhere now.

Thanks so much for your help, Marc. I would’ve missed Vienna, if it hadn’t been for your remarks.