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Raising monsters with Lincoln Michel's Upright Beasts (2015)

November 3, 2015


Lincoln Michel’s short story collection debuted in early October. I read it. I liked it. The cover, with its frightened boy inside an angry bear suit, promises the book will fulfill some sort of longing for Where the Wild Things Are. And, as Michel’s stories suggest, the wild things are within and without us.


I really did like this book.

From the quirky “Our Education” and its commentary on what holds all these daily rituals together to the story of the book’s font, “A Note on the Type,” Michel twists, adapts, and mangles how the world appears, and in these mutations, he finds some of what it really is.

For example, “Our Education” takes place in a school where the teachers are AWOL and yet the students still attend. At first, as a teacher, I had to ask, what would a world without teachers be? Then I thought about how sometimes I leave my students unattended when I have to use the bathroom, make copies, or simply catch my breath. And guess what—most of the time everything and everyone ends up fine. Just as good or bad as they always were. I teach in a school much like the school I once attended, where many of the teachers who would have taught me are no longer present. Time passes, people leave, and yet we all still attend these institutions, these rituals, these daily lives.

Michel begins the story: “Time passes unexpectedly or, perhaps, inexactly at the school” (3).

And, perhaps, what counts as monstrous is always dependent on the time in which individuals view and study it. Is the monster seen? Or, does the monster see? How do you know you are one?

I could write more. I tend to be long winded about the things I love, and I really enjoyed reading this book. After doing so, I rattled off a handful of short stories, willing to take chances I might otherwise have shied away from executing. In this way, Michel’s writing is both approachable and inspiring. You read them and you want to write them. He must be a pretty good teacher in his own right. He is obviously a person who lives and breathes stories.


Maybe I’m cheating on that last comment. After all, I follow Michel on Twitter and am friends with him on Facebook (whatever that means), and he shares daily through both social networks just how much he loves stories. And, if he’s lying, well, then I believe in the glory of the lie.

Over the last couple weeks, I used two of these stories in class: “The Room inside My Father’s Room” and “What We Have Surmised about the John Adams Incarnation.” I had students annotate for tone with both stories. I introduced microcosms, macrocosms, and allegory. We talked about mythologies versus histories versus experience. The conversation may not have made sense. When the universe comes to know us “as arcane and barbaric” for our faith in “the ancient United Statsian religion” (161), I want that universe to understand that like the Mayan and the Aztec we either did or did not recognize that “Death, in all its myriad incarnations, was, as always, right around the corner.”

I guess you could say these lesson plans were a backwards, sidestepping slouch towards Lincoln Michel’s canonization, and I would like to think him, me, all of us, are the better monsters for it.


Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys. Upright Beasts is available from Coffee House Press

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