Michel, an editor at Gigantic and Electric Literature, makes his fiction debut with a collection of stories—all restrained, all strange.
In this book, you get 25 stories in 216 pages—not a bad deal. Michel opens with “Our Education,” which has this offhanded mention on its second page: “There is an ongoing fire in the back corner of the cafeteria.” The surrealism is introduced without any underlining, setting the tone for not only this story, but for the book as a whole. Soon, it becomes clear that the teachers have vanished, but Michel is interested in mystery, not answers. The word “elliptical” was invented for tales like these, most of which are set in mundane suburban spaces in which people “feel detached from their surroundings.” Some of the stories are remarkable—and no surprise, they tend to be the longer ones: “Some Notes on My Brother’s Brief Travels” leaves an impression with its dancing man dressed like a chicken, an image both absurd and lonely. “Things Left Outside” feels like an update of Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home,” with violence creeping into domesticity. “Halfway Home to Somewhere Else,” the best story here, involves a grown man’s conflicts with a group of teenagers at a swimming hole. Michel knows the right authors to mimic, and his stories take cues from Barthelme and Aimee Bender in addition to Carver…but then, what stories by an emerging writer don’t these days? For all the book’s quirkiness, the cumulative effect is somewhat familiar, like a piece of boxy IKEA furniture anyone can build as long as they follow the instructions, and too many of Michel’s shorter pieces are forgettable, lacking enough substance to become truly haunting; they feel as lightweight as paper airplanes, taken away by the wind before reaching any destination.
A strong debut despite its unevenness.