Melissa Bull - Dark like Duras, flippant comme Sagan, with elements of the surreal running through, these Montreal stories are modern feminist fables for the reader who is decidedly uninterested in upholding the moral of the story as it’s been traditionally told
Melissa Bull, The Knockoff Eclipse, Anvil Press, 2018.
Melissa Bull’s debut short story collection The Knockoff Eclipse hums with the immediacy of distant and future worlds. Firmly rooted in the streets and landmarks of Montreal and its many neighbourhoods and subcultures, Bull’s characters shine with the dirt of digging just deep enough.
Dark like Duras, flippant comme Sagan, with elements of the surreal running through, these Montreal stories are modern feminist fables for the reader who is decidedly uninterested in upholding the moral of the story as it’s been traditionally told.
“Bull’s eye is unfailingly precise, and the best of these stories distill warped vectors of humanity into dry-ice absurdity and pitiful rawness. … Bull is a master provocateur, working through subtle, overlooked shades of experience to find some new level of exactitude in emotional injury.”
— Montreal Review of Books
“Melissa Bull is George Saunders and Clarice Lispector and Lorrie Moore and none of these people — she’s her own vivid, mordant, heartbreaking story-writer, a teller of present and future Montreals, where desire and language and memory tangle in the alleys.” — Sean Michaels
“In The Knockoff Eclipse, Melissa Bull captures the city of Montreal: its myths, history, languages, and energy. Reminiscent of Gallant’s Montreal Stories, these tales grasp the grit of a contemporary Montreal and all of its human struggles . . . Contrary to its title, this collection is luminous.” — Gillian Sze
“Wry, weird, and funny, Melissa Bull’s collection looks at how we are deeply entangled with place as well as with each other. Holding fast to the senses, they are compassionate, dark, and true.” — Alison Winch
“This is the world I want to inhabit: full of gloriously flawed human beings, singular and part of a brilliant inclusive weave. These tales give me hope for the future.” — Sina Queryas
It has become something of a trend in Canadian short stories to exaggerate the confines of everyday life as a means of pushing characters to a breaking point. Canadian short stories have tilted toward a kind of “oddity realism” that amplifies weirdness as a means of capturing the peculiarities of the Canadian experience – Deborah Willis’s 2017 collection The Dark and Other Love Stories is one successful example. Melissa Bull’s debut story collection, The Knockoff Eclipse, sometimes strays into this mode but the strongest stories stick to the ordinariness of the everyday. The entries in The Knockoff Eclipse are shorter than most short stories; they frequently begin in medias res and do not resolve into a tidy conclusion.
The stories in Bull’s collection are rooted in the Québécois experience, many of them intertwining French dialogue with the English text, though the author employs restraint in this regard as a means of making sure the unilingual reader doesn’t get lost. In “Downpour,” a meditation about rain, Bull writes, “My mother and I used to call big tear-shaped raindrops des p’tits monsieurs because they looked like tiny men jumping in and out of puddles. And now I’m getting a memory from when I was about three and my mother had her store and I was in her arms eating a peanut butter and banana sandwich.”
Bull’s stories are strongest in their descriptive aspects. “Beers bobbed in a cooler of melted ice by the fridge, I grabbed one. The bottle was wet but still relatively cool. I put it against my forehead for a moment, then tucked my hand into the bottom of my skirt to twist off the cap. I couldn’t see a garbage bin so I put the cap into my purse.” Mannerisms that are so commonplace they often go unnoticed anchor the stories and offer a sense of familiarity.
By capturing recognizable glimpses of relatable situations, Bull’s stories root themselves in reality, which is especially useful when they venture into the supernatural. In the title story, the setting is distinctly contemporary: a gentrified dive bar, the streets of Montreal, the dingy apartment that is the site of a one-night-stand. But something is off: the bar patrons’ clothes flash messages and provide warmth. Wendy, the woman that Henry goes home with, has shaved all the hair off her body including her eyebrows. Henry refers to her as “alien girl.” The story introduces more questions than answers, disorienting the reader with a world that seems similar to ours but isn’t. Bull’s stories never have pat endings, adding an extra layer that enriches the collection. - Tatum Dooley
What is happening now, here, to us? The question recurs throughout Melissa Bull’s first collection of short fiction, The Knockoff Eclipse, which could double as an index of quotidian humiliations and indignities. The answer, it seems, requires that we learn to recognize and name injustice where and when it occurs.Alluringly spare (160 pages contain twenty-three stories), this book doesn’t warn you before it jabs you with a lucid emotional cocktail. Like the nurses in “Number 42” – a story about a pharmaceutical test subject that answered all of my questions about those Medieval Times-themed ads on the metro – this is the kind of fiction that will drive a malleable hose up your arm and get exasperated if your blood coagulates disobediently. What should be a simple procedure – a road trip, a weekend at the lake with family, a conference – becomes chaotic, upsetting, gross.
Take the title character in “Chez Serge,” one half of a depressingly familiar modern non-couple:
He tells her she’s more beautiful in the morning; he coughs phlegm into some toilet paper and roots deep into his nose for a load of dried-up skin and snot. He tells her that one day his nose will rot off his face. He says they should have breakfast. “Did you want to borrow my toothbrush? I promise no other woman has used it.”Bull takes grim delight in moments like this: normal, though they shouldn’t be; disgusting both emotionally and materially; liable to leave characters and readers both at a loss for the appropriate reaction. Bafflement? Outrage? Should a person shrug it off, or walk out? Should a character quit their job in a boutique where everything is “singularly beautiful” and “a Stelton jug in burnt orange melamine expresses like no other thing the quiddity of the cylinder”? No, quitting doesn’t even occur to them, because they can’t afford an umbrella and their shoes are falling apart as they walk home through a rainstorm. Likewise, will a character listen to the Italian countess slumming in her apartment during the ice storm when she tells her, “It is essential to find your signature scent”? No, because she knows how much a can of spaghetti sauce costs and the countess is decked out in “haphazardly worn Yves Saint Laurent.”
When I asked Bull about the draw of these moments – and their underlying politics of class and gender – she said, “I guess I think about the repercussions of injustices, class, slights. Our participation in those injustices and the ways in which we might be trapped in whatever circumstances we might find ourselves. Sometimes it’s impossible to get out of a situation, but noting or naming an injustice is a way of affirming our presence.”
Bull’s eye is unfailingly precise, and the best of these stories distill warped vectors of humanity into dry-ice absurdity and pitiful rawness. This knack for cataloguing unfairness and grubby immobility on every scale, from the macroeconomic to the domestic, makes for addictive reading. Bull’s demotic, unpretentious sentences provoke the simultaneous adrenaline high and depressant low of a drunken argument on the street in front of a pseudo-Irish sports bar with an unmemorable boyfriend. A fight like the one in “Stations of the Cross,” where a young woman takes an inadvertent nostalgia-turned-shame tour of the city she came of age in:
She had no recollection of any words she and her then-boyfriend had exchanged in their clash, she could only recall how she’d felt. And she felt it, palpably, immediately, right now.This could just as easily describe good fiction’s job: not to express emotion but to evoke it. Or provoke it – if anything, Bull is a master provocateur, working through subtle, overlooked shades of experience to find some new level of exactitude in emotional injury. Like the experience of walking, as a tourist, to sit in a famous square in an unfamiliar city:
You know when you have been had. When you see that you’ve been childish and for a while you just feel shitty about not knowing that you were so stupid—you don’t want to think yourself capable of being so stupid. I don’t want to throw around a word like shame. It’s too punishing. Regret is too nostalgic. I sat there thinking neither of those words, just—I am such an asshole.“I see a scene and I feel something acutely,” Bull says of her process for writing emotion. “Usually some level of discomfort, either from having to write something new and exploratory, or from whatever situation I’m investigating. I feel the characters’ emotions sharply but prefer to not over-explain them. Their gestures, the things they notice, already feel loaded to me.”
Bull’s debut poetry collection, Rue, came out with Anvil in 2015, and was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award. She translated Nelly Arcan’s essays Burqa de chair in 2014, and is a prolific French-to-English translator for theatre and print. She says some of the stories in The Knockoff Eclipse were written in internet cafés along Mont-Royal Avenue a decade ago, while others were written as recently as last year.
While the stories aren’t exclusively set in Montreal, many are, and the book is threaded with the city’s idiosyncrasies. As a translator writing bilingual characters in a bilingual city, Bull slips back and forth between francophone and anglophone lenses, often in the same sentence, leaving coded clues for the initiated. Tanks on the street, ice storms (the ice storm), deliberately tired quips about tea and oranges, “Laval-pretty” and “Hochelaga-poor.” Montreal has been inspiring an extensive literary cartography for decades, but Bull’s linguistic overlay refers to a data set many readers in Vancouver, New York, Copenhagen, or Mile End might not otherwise encounter. Her cryptographic details recount the alienating, pleasurable friction of living here, where linguistic or empathetic ambitions never guarantee comprehension.
“I’ve often wished I could write in French, but I don’t think I can,” Bull says. “Yeats said, ‘English is my native language but not my mother tongue.’ French is my mother tongue. For a variety of reasons, my education was primarily conducted in English, and this, added to the fact that my anglophone father had custody of me and was also a writer, and the high-stakes politics in Quebec at the time of my adolescence, probably all acted to shape my writing in English rather than French. So I don’t write in French, and now feel that it would embarrass me to try. And yet I am also a francophone. The words and accents of this place are my home. In my mind, many of these characters are French-speaking, and I am translating their words into English.”
“I think in both languages. I live in both languages. I happen to write in English, but I don’t want to censor myself. I also want to share with English-speaking people a little bit of how things are, here. How things sound to us in French.”
I suspect Bull’s eye for injustice is part of this broader act of translation: even as she generously relays culture and language, she also translates our own gut-level reactions into something recognizable. But, as with all translation projects, there are limits. Certain facets remain unknowable. In “Illumination,” for instance, a youthful road trip would be satisfying for its social intricacies alone, but the plot takes a breathless, bizarre turn that leaves the characters unable to process it. “What happened to us last night?” asks Geneviève. “It wasn’t anything,” Malik responds. The reader might take a guess – I won’t spoil it here – but the story turns the question into an act of necessary resistance. What is happening here, now, to us? Even when the answer eludes translation or transcends comprehension, The Knockoff Eclipse reminds us to keep asking, naming, and affirming our presence. - Paige Cooper
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.”).
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. - Peter McCambridge