A thunderstorm couldn’t have been more fitting weather for the launch of Upright Beasts, Lincoln Michel’s debut collection of short fiction out now from Coffee House Press.
Michel, who earned his MFA at Columbia University, is a model literary citizen. He is the co-founder of Gigantic, the online editor of Electric Literature and a drawer of “Monster Lit” trading cards. He also describes himself as a “fairly frequent tweeter.”
While Michel may be a model literary citizen, his fiction is anything but conventional. His stories employ surrealist and fabulist elements to create unsettling landscapes populated by monstrous characters that lead confusing and existentially challenging narrative existences. Michel’s fictions can be histories of alternate humanities, meditations on the structures of stories, concoctions of horror and science fiction, and haunting descriptions of characters and their agony. Though the whimsicality of his narratives and the levity of his prose make the majority of his stories distinctly unreal, they contain characters and ideas that cut to the core of what it means to be human.
The first story in Michel’s collection, “Our Education,” perfectly epitomizes his capabilities and tendencies as a writer. The story, which first appeared in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, balances character-driven narrative with unquieting surrealism, and contains as much emotional vulnerability as it does subtle irony. “Our Education” also incorporates a plot reminiscent of Lord of the Flies and a plethora of literary allusions (a teacher is named Mr. Lispector, the children all fear the “black lounge,” a gaping Lovecraftian hole in the school’s cosmos). All of these components coalesce to make for an unforgettable story.
In an interview prior to the reading, Michel claimed that Kafka is his literary idol because of Kafka’s ability to be both very dark and very funny simultaneously. Michel shares Kafka’s abilities (according to The New York Times), but writing towards Kafka wasn’t always the easiest undertaking for him. When asked if he ever received any pushback for being a writer who didn’t shy away from styles and ideas that some associate with “genre,” Michel confirmed that he always felt pushback while in undergrad, but that his impulses were encouraged in his MFA program, as its faculty included the likes of Ben Marcus and Kelly Link, who are also unafraid of employing the bizarre and the surreal in their stories. “Genre,” Michel said, “is a constraint like any other. Take Kubrick, for example. He worked in a variety of genres: science fiction, horror, historical fiction. He treated genre as a component of form. That’s how I think about genre.”
During a Q&A session with acclaimed novelist and essayist Porochista Khakpour, Michel explained that the collection’s four sections are essentially four separate genres. He described the first section (Upright Beasts) as “the weird,” the second section (North American Mammals) as “southern realist,” the third section (Familiar Creatures) as “fabulist,” and the fourth section (Megafauna) as “monster horror stories.”
“You’re such a fixture in the literary community that I feel like this isn’t your debut,” said Khakpour, to laughs from the audience. Indeed, Michel’s fiction has been appearing at publications like NOON, BOMB, Tin House, and Oxford American for a decade. In the run up to the publication of his debut collection, stories from Upright Beasts appeared in Granta, VICE, Oyster Review, and Catapult. And yet there is much yet to be discovered in the book, as it consists of 25 stories and spans over 200 pages.
What’s next for Michel now that he has taken short fiction by storm?
“Well I’m working on a graphic novel with Lovecraftian horror elements about a park ranger that’s kind of like Werner Herzog,” he said. “I’m also writing a novel about existentially depressed super villains.”
“Any final words?” Khakpour asked Michel.
“Weird is good, I suppose,” he responded.
Upright Beasts were also in attendance at the event.