Lincoln Michel must be one of the world’s busiest young writers. In addition to serving as editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com, he is a founding editor of Gigantic, a literary magazine dedicated to flash fiction, and he co-edited Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction. He’s also a pretty great writer.
One of my favorite stories from his 2015 collection, Upright Beasts, is Things Left Outside, which you can also read online at Weird Fiction Review. I liked this story so much that I decided to share it with my students during our section dedicated to literature. I teach mostly college-level first-year students, and it’s often difficult to get these students excited about fiction. The Michel story, however, generated a great deal of excitement and discussion.
The story begins when the narrator’s husband (Gerald) discovers a dead body. The woman was apparently shot, and she died crawling halfway under the fence onto the narrator’s property. The woman has no identification, but she is about the same age and appearance as the narrator (Carol). She’s wearing a green shirt similar to one Carol owns, and her bag contains objects that Carol also owns.
The mystery of this dead woman is at the core of the story, but the story is about so much more. Carol becomes obsessed with discovering the woman’s identity. She wants to know who killed the woman. She even begins to suspect Gerald may know more than he’s letting on. Is he involved? The reader must work like a detective to pick apart the text in finding clues. The question that looms most is whether Carol suffers from mild paranoia and temporary obsession or does her imbalance cross a line into deeper madness?
A couple of my students felt dissatisfied because the murderer is never revealed. I suppose that is to be expected when you grow up in a world with eighty-seven different versions of Law & Order. But the real debate about this story spawned around a surprising interpretation of the story that was theorized by more than one student. Their theory was that the dead woman was really Carol.
After reading a short story in class, I typically ask my students what they think in general terms. Someone’s first response is inevitably that the story is “weird.” I’ve been trying to break my students from using this catch-all expression, but in the case of Things Left Outside, they might be right. Things Left Outside really is weird, especially if your interpretation of the story hinges on Carol also being the dead woman that Carol becomes obsessed with. (Further evidence of the story’s weirdness can be found in its publication at Weird Fiction Review.)
There’s a surprising amount of evidence to support this “weird” theory, although some of the same pieces of evidence could support a more conventional interpretation, which is simply that Carol identifies with the dead woman. One of my goals in discussing this story was to emphasize that your theory is only as strong as the evidence you can find in the text to support it. And to my students’ credit, they got more and more excited each time something pushed the scale in their favor. When class conversation reached the verge of civil war, a few students demanded that I tell them which theory was right. Imagine their frustration when I wouldn’t (or couldn’t) give them an answer.
The truth is that I don’t know what Lincoln Michel’s intention was in writing this story. I see arguments for both views. But whether Carol is looking at some version of herself lying under the barbed wire fence or merely another human being who reminds her of her own mortality isn’t really the point. More importantly, I find the character, Carol, to be interesting, and the situation Michel has created in Things Left Outside is so dynamic that I want to sink into the story and think about what it all means. I want to live with Carol for a while, or with her on the page at least, and I’m okay with it even if I can’t definitely answer all the questions that might arise. I’m more than okay with it.
This open-ended view of literature is exactly what some of my students find frustrating. One of my students (a pre-med student whom I can already tell will one day make a very fine doctor) explained to me that chemistry is easier than literature because there’s always a right answer in chemistry. With literature, there is no one right answer. This very idea is what is so frightening to so many of my students. They’re unsettled by the uncertainty. I don’t know if this is a symptom of their age, or the times we live in, or that they just haven’t been exposed to enough good literature. All I can tell them is that I love how a good story can imitate life by exposing our uncertainties. Some of them accept that answer. Other students are tracking Lincoln Michel at this very moment, determined to extract an explanation of his intentions. That’s okay with me, too. At least they care enough about this story to want to understand it.
Denton Loving lives on a farm near the historic Cumberland Gap, where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia come together. He is the author of the poetry collection, Crimes Against Birds (Main Street Rag). He is also the editor of Seeking Its Own Level: an anthology of writings about water (MotesBooks). His fiction, poetry, essays, reviews and interviews have been appeared in over 80 publications including River Styx, CutBank, [PANK] and The Chattahoochee Review. Follow him on twitter @DentonLoving.
Lincoln Michel is the editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com and a founding editor of Gigantic. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Oxford American, Tin House, NOON, Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. His essays and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, Bookforum, Buzzfeed, Vice, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. He is the co-editor of Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction, and the author of Upright Beasts, a collection of short stories (Coffee House Press, 2015). He was born in Virginia and lives in Brooklyn. He tweets at @thelincoln.