Today’s selection comes from Lincoln Michel and his excellent collection of stories, Upright Beasts, a highly regarded 2015 release from Coffee House Press. The story I’ve chosen to write about is “The Room Inside My Father’s Room,” the shortest piece I’ve written about so far, clocking in at only four pages. The book is cut into four parts, the first entitled “Upright Beasts,” and “The Room Inside My Father’s Room is the fifth story in. I read the first section of this book so far, and at this point, Upright Beasts is in the strong running to be my favorite book of 2015.
I published a Lincoln Michel story, “The Mayor’s Plan,” in Mid-American Review several years back, and have since seen his name pop up in lit journals here and there, works I always flipped to when seeing his name on the back cover. He has a story in last year’s Pushcart anthology, an edition I used for a couple of my classes last semester, and I enjoyed it very much. The MAR story is in this book, but the Pushcart story isn’t, so grab that 2015 edition, too, if you can.
Michel is no realist, though there’s no magic or genre-crossing or steam purnkery; he’s a big concept guy, and since I favor that type of story, it’s no surprise I like the book so much. He’s an absurdist, through and through, and I see Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme, Lydia Davis, and Etgar Keret all guiding his hand. “The Mayor’s plan,” is just a couple of pages long (it was my pick as an Editor’s Choice in our yearly Fineline Competition) but killer, about a mayor boosting approval ratings by giving everyone a key to the city, overwhelming the town key factory. Upright Beasts’s first story, “Our Education,” traps a group of teenaged tropes in their school, the teachers having vanished, to the point where the can’t leave and just live there, yet maintain the everyday business of a school. Another is set in an apartment building where everyone is obsessed by a particular method of suicide, is addicted to it (though no one’s very successful). These shorts add just the right enough of reality to make them relatable, as once the concept is established, the characters still act like people, vulnerable, needy, angry, confused. Michel’s tone is dead-on, delivering descriptions and dialogues so straight-forward, with such clear and evocative sentences, every absurdity is believable in its deadpannedness (deadpantitude?). A passage from the mayor story: “Soon the mayor’s assistants set up a stand on Main Street and hand out the keys to anyone with proper ID. Everyone in the city has always felt that they were special, and now they have a symbol to prove it.”
“The Room Inside My Father’s Room” features an interesting geography, as the protagonist lives inside his tiny room, unhappy for how small it is. He exits his room through a door, only to find his father’s room, a larger square in which his room sits, in the upper right hand corner, taking up exactly a quarter of the space. The father does not want to hear his complaining, though, as his room occupies the upper right hand quarter of his father’s room. The pattern goes on and on, in both directions, we assume without end.
Kudos to Lincoln Michel firstly for making this so easy to see—I’m not sure if anyone reading this can see the room set-up as easily as I see it when Michel describes it. But it’s easier to see as the story moves forward, each generation’s room larger than the previous, by the same 3-1 ratio, the larger room holding the smaller room in the upper right quadrant, a square in the corner of a larger square. If I’d written this, it would have sounded like some kind of geometry proof, I’ll bet, and I would have abandoned the idea and just wondered off somewhere.
The theme, the concept, is all about fathers and sons, about legacy, about history repeating itself (like Star Wars!). I may have revealed too much about everything already, so I won’t go any further into the plot, but it’s as clever and wonderful as anything I can think of.
I also give Michel a lot of credit—in this storv and every other I’ve read of his—for restraint. Earlier, I’d said these stories were high-concept, and Michel sticks to that concept, keeping the story about that concept. The protagonists in these stories, including “The Room Inside My Father’s House,” don’t have physical descriptions, don’t live in particular places, and don’t have long, informative backstories. They’re sort of everymen, members of society that Michel can point his satirical brush at, gauge, then paint into his brilliant scenarios. I aspire to that. Some writers might balk at the lack of traditional in-depth character, setting, and description, the same argument I’ve heard so many times about Barthelme’s work. “What did Barthelme’s characters look like?” and “Where were Barthelme’s stories set?” are my go-to (and completely brilliant) responses. Those doubters usually reply, “I don’t really like Barthelme” and I know I’ve won because they’re just wrong. Michel lives in that same realm, and I wish I had his restraint—some stories in my first book stuck to those guns, but lately, I’ve been overwriting, adding hair color and city names and childhood tragedies. Like 40 Stories and 60 Stories, Upright Beasts is the exact book I wish I’d written.
For the past few years, I’ve done a best-of list of story collections around New Year’s Day, but I skipped the 2015 list because there were too many books I’d bought but hadn’t cracked yet (Eight days in, Upright Beasts may have taken a slight lead over some other books (the Lucia Berlin book is right up there) for that honor, and “The Room Inside My Father’s House” is so far the gem. We’ll wait and see before we hand out trophies, though. Still so many books to read.