by Melissa Bull
Anvil Press, 2018
The Knockoff Eclipse is set in a world of free refills, bad coffee (it’s cheaper), and low expectations. Characters work minimum-wage store jobs, shop at second-hand stores; it rains; for “men who never learned to take care of themselves properly” lunch “is a poutine and two-dog deal, every dinner is delivered in a greased box.” This is dirty, grimy, working-class realism. Life is “all sweat and no fruit.” Melissa Bull is, as Sean Michaels blurbs on the back cover, “a teller of present and future Montreals, where desire and language and memory tangle in the alleys.”
For every collection of short stories, the temptation is to summarize what many of the stories are about. No doubt to demonstrate the author’s range, to draw out the similarities and differences between them, to provide a sense of place and tone. So let’s get to it.
There’s a power and beauty to the collection from the get-go, a force to Melissa Bull’s writing with its talk of abortions and tumours that wind within, “embracing […] from the inside,” as two girls close a store in the opening story.
Then, abruptly, pleasingly, eighteen-wheeler trucks are veering along the highway and we shift gears into a first-person narrative and linguistic tensions. Creaking relationships and power dynamics play out over breakfast at a diner. There are Mason jars half-filled with scotch; a punk with “jello-pink hair” sheds “globby baby tears” as medical guinea pigs subject themselves to pharmaceutical testing in return for $1000; people all too often settle for second best (“I looked a little like the girl he really liked except she was more athletic and I was less friendly.”)
There’s the odd sprinkling of French (“rien de spécial about ce soir”) throughout. We switch from absolute realism (“My foam mattress was about two inches thick. I could feel the uneven floorboards underneath. The bed, if it could be called one, was squeezed into an alcove in front of a crooked, curtainless window.”) to something more poetic (“My alarm clock clicked its muted battery-operated metronome, timing the morning’s pale yellow beams, which flooded through aspen maple branches in a pre-string stream, all show-offy traingular angles, no heat.”).
There are some lovely turns of phrase. A girl is “Laval-pretty”; a crowd, “a cumbersome series of grabs.” Expectations are inverted as someone isn’t “snug as a bug in a rug” but, more likely for this particular collection, “snug as a bug in her sick.” It’s delightfully obvious that Bull is perfectly at home in a world that we assume to be contemporary Montreal. She moves between linguistic and social strata with ease, the short story form very much suited to giving the reader a flavour of what’s happening before shuffling characters, changing registers, zooming in on a different perspective, then moving on.
Perspective, a certain way of looking at the world, seems key to Bull’s writing:
“She wondered what someone who spent every other day by the highway, under the huge bridge that connected the island to the South Shore, at the part of the Saint Lawrence where the rapids rip up the blues and greys, what that person saw of the city she never did.”
A rule of thumb that sometimes applies as much to the narrator as to the characters:
“Wait. I was eating an apple something. Strudel. The almond croissant was another day.”
The collection is thoughtful and well thought-out. The stories linger after we move on, each with its own aftertaste. Tart, not sweet.
Review by Peter McCambridge