The mouths of monsters: Lincoln Michel’s Upright Beasts finds cohesion in the surreal

Lincoln Michel’s debut book, Upright Beasts, reflects his genre-bending style in a collection of short stories that challenge interpretation. Photo: Andrew Owen Lincoln Michel’s debut book, Upright Beasts, reflects his genre-bending style in a collection of short stories that challenge interpretation. Photo: Andrew Owen

Charlottesville native Lincoln Michel knows a thing or two about literature. A familiar face in the New York literary community, he received his MFA in fiction from Columbia University and is currently the editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com as well as a co-founder of Gigantic, a magazine dedicated to flash fiction. Michel has also been publishing short works of his own in literary magazines for the past decade. Heck, he even wrote a recent BuzzFeed piece titled, “The Ultimate Guide to Getting Published in a Literary Magazine.” You get the idea.

“There is an odd aura that comes with putting out a book,” Michel says. “Readers and critics take you much more seriously when you’ve gone through the process of publishing an actual book.”

Michel read selections from his debut book, Upright Beasts, at the New Dominion Bookshop on November 13. For those who missed the reading, there are still plenty of reasons to pick up a copy.

Michel received commendations leading up to and following the book’s Brooklyn launch party in early October. Admittedly, the praise is warranted. Though each story was published previously as a standalone piece, the nuance with which they’ve been organized in the book warps and enhances the reading experience. Some stories lean in the general direction of something resembling reality; others tack strongly toward the surreal. However, all share Michel’s knack for examining the fissures that, at times, open between the ordinary and the profound. In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall writes, “No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how hard we dig in our heels, we can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds.” This is certainly true within the pages of Upright Beasts.

Narratively, each story works well as a singular piece but, like the best collections, gains in significance when stitched together with others. The individual stories begin to coalesce into a singular reality—very different from our own, but difficult to separate from each other at times. “Dark Air” takes place on a farm that feels like it might share a fence line with the pastoral landscape where “Things Left Outside” is set, yet the former features a monstrous, fleshy creature with supernatural powers, and the latter a woman who encounters a dead body that may or may not be her own. Both require a suspension of disbelief and both nudge the reader to imagine the extraordinary in the mundane.

While many aspects of this world differ from our own, in minute or monstrous ways, others are more familiar. Indeed, the influence of Central Virginia is felt in more than a few of these stories. For instance, the quarry in “Halfway Home to Somewhere Else” will remind many local readers of afternoon escapes to nearby swimming holes.

“I think the landscape of Virginia greatly influenced me,” Michel says. “The first house I grew up in was surrounded by woods, and the Virginia forests and the deer, salamanders, crayfish, birds, water spiders and hills covered in kudzu form a lot of my early memories. I’m certainly drawn to those things when writing; they’ve been imbued with personal meaning. Most of the second section of the book, ‘North American Mammals,’ is more or less based in Central Virginia.”

Michel’s stories explore our world by reflecting on a simulacrum through the lives of the titular upright beasts. These characters exist and the reader witnesses as they have experiences, but each story is about more than the action that takes place on the page. In “The Room Inside My Father’s Room” and “My Life in the Bellies of Beasts,” one character is hampered by the expectations of family and home, while the other is marooned in a series of fleshy stomachs along an upward journey on the food chain. However, both stories are effective meditations on the limitations of reality and the psychic fallout they can create. When the stories succeed, they do so in part because Michel leaves space for the reader to inhabit the narrative, filling in meaning and allowing a certain leeway in interpretation.

Citing his influences, Michel is genre-agnostic, including everyone from Ursula K. Le Guin and Raymond Chandler to Flannery O’Connor and Italo Calvino. “My absolute favorite authors were…writers of weird happenings and off-kilter worlds,” he says. With Upright Beasts, Michel has succeeded in writing that very type of multifaceted and unexpected book for his own readers to be shaped by and to enjoy. His future projects promise the same, including an upcoming novel about super villains, a collaborative graphic novel imagining Werner Herzog as a park ranger and a ghost story.

“I always knew I wanted to write in different genres, in much the same way that I want to write with different styles, different voices and different structures,” says Michel. “There’s no reason to box yourself in with fiction.”

Who is your favorite writer from Charlottesville?

Share your answer in the comments below.

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