What struck me most about Lincoln Michel’s novella, Our Education was the way it painted a devastating metaphor for society, sketching with understated wit, subversive in its intonations. The inflections are provocative, but you have to pay attention to the thematic underpinnings to make sure you don’t miss a beat. The religious intertwines in the social rituals that become disturbingly alien with the contextual shift Michel introduces- all the teachers have vanished and the students have taken charge.
Our Education is the story that launches Michel’s collection, Upright Beasts. But the dramatis personae is as much the characters gripping towards their monstrous humanity as it is the reader, confronted by an almost banal cruelty. Our attempt to decipher who is the beast and who is the human form part of the structural crux that many of the stories hinge on. There’s the macabre playacting in the school children of “Almost Recess.”
“The children erect a gallows out of desks, cardboard, and ribbon. A child is hung and then buried in the locker room under a pile of backpacks. The child is made to remain there, held down by two of the larger boys if necessary, for at least thirty seconds.”
Since the children “do not understand anything about death,” they “cheer and clap. Don’t they realize that nothing returns from the dirt? Not ever? Death might as well be a lollipop to them.” The teacher wants to edify the children on the gravity of mortality and demonstrates a permanent recess that chillingly goes awry. Michel’s stories will often cut away right after a moment of menacing carnage, refusing to get didactic, leaving a surreal and evocative aftertaste. He’s a teacher who sets up a sandbox where his characters wage war on each other but he takes a step back so we can all watch what happens for ourselves.
“Our New Neighborhood” is outwardly about points and property values. Margot’s husband, Donald, is obsessed with making sure the prices go up on his slice of the American nightmare. Social status is a vague set of numerals no one seems to understand. Donald, ominously enough, wants to make the community great again and becomes obsessed towards that end, installing cameras and even taking out a home equity loan to buy iSpy drones. A neighborhood resistance group springs up, wearing latex masks shaped like Donald’s face to mock him.
“Middle Pond feels like a ghost town. Children are no longer allowed to play games in the street. No one walks their dogs or barbeques on their lawn. Our neighbors don’t want to have every action watched, every interaction documented. They stay inside with the curtains drawn. Most of them have purchased tinted windows for their cars so Donald can’t see how many come and go. The only things that move on the streets are the drones, humming in their preprogrammed patterns.”
Margot, who at first wishes her husband paid more attention to her and their forthcoming twins, finds comfort in the titillation of online dating sites. They’re digital glimpses of carefully crafted profiles, carved into a mirage of who people desperately yearn to be. Donald’s ultimate triumph isn’t the result of his crusade to salvage the neighborhood as it is his discovery of his wife’s habit and the way they uncover the personas behind the online silhouettes.
That and the monsters we hide for exploitative purposes like in “Dark Air.” The story reminds me in some ways of an old grindhouse flick. The emotional metamorphosis is discarded for a physical transformation as three friends get into a car crash in the middle of nowhere. Michel’s diction can be unnerving in its descriptions of beautiful monstrosities and works well in this campy mix of horror and humor. The eerie setup uncovers a strange creature with spikes that “undulated up and down in a sad rhythm” and that “fell here from another glorious world.” Fascinatingly, “It sustains itself on electricity and makes love with it. It’s how it reproduces. We’ve been eating its bounty, using every part like the Indians.”
Michel uses every part of the collection to explore the zoology of beasts. His taxonomy contemplates, gazes, and ponders on the animalistic meanderings of human existence. He reminds us the cages protecting us are an illusion and the beast snarls within, ready to devour until we’re all unrecognizable, upright or not.