Michael Melgaard’s debut collection of short fiction, Pallbearing, begins with a story of the same name. Jonathan is a pallbearer for his friend Alana, a young woman who was terminally ill for long enough to meticulously plan her own funeral. Jonathan is initially able to see Alana’s touch in the proceedings – he notes that at least five of the pallbearers, including himself, have slept with Alana, a detail she would have found bitingly funny – but as the ceremony plods along, he begins to grow skeptical.
A woman he doesn’t know does a reading from what she claims was Alana’s favourite children’s book, an act that Jonathan finds both corny and deceitful: Alana didn’t have a favourite children’s book, did she? When tulips are handed round to drop into the grave, Jonathan finds himself equally disbelieving that these had been Alana’s favourite flower. As far as he knew, she didn’t have one. The story ends with Jonathan crying by Alana’s graveside, although it’s not entirely clear why; was it a sudden realization that he hadn’t bothered to know his friend at all, a glimpse of his own mortality, or something else? Whatever prompted them, it seems clear that the tears he sheds are more for himself than anyone else.
This is a theme that continues throughout the collection, one of people who are very nearly self-aware but, somehow, never quite get there. The stories are at their strongest when examining the lives of men, most of them stuck between a desire, subconscious or not, to uphold traditional gender roles while at the same time struggling with a version of masculinity that traps them into self-destructive patterns. At best, these men are buffoonish; at worst, their lack of insight into their own thoughts and feelings actively harms everyone around them.
They prey on underaged girls, mistreat their wives, and casually absent themselves from parenting their children, all with the martyr-like air of one who has had to sacrifice much. These men feel entitled to better lives, like the ones they imagine their fathers and grandfathers might have lived. They’re so consumed with self-pity that they have no capacity to understand that the people around them also have complex inner lives. In the face of a changing world, they prefer not to re-evaluate their own long-held biases; instead, they’ll have a few beers with their pals at the bar and pass out on the couch, swearing that tomorrow will be different.
Melgaard’s quiet genius, like so many Canadian short-story writers before him, is in finding remarkable drama in the mundanities that make up an unremarkable life. The small towns he uses as settings are a sort of anytown, places that are a few hours’ drive from some nameless city and exist in a state of continual rural decline. In Pallbearing, everything is exactly as disappointing as it seems: even the rare moments of levity are bleak in their own way.
By contrast, the stories in Maria Reva’s first collection, Good Citizens Need Not Fear, are more like a funhouse mirror. Given the setting of a Ukrainian town in the 1980s, readers might enter the collection expecting the usual westernized version of life in the late Soviet Union: corruption, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, maybe a dash of the secret police. But while these elements do make appearances in Reva’s fiction, the overall tone is one of nihilistic, elated mysticism. Her stories don’t have twists so much as layers, as in soil: every bit of digging uncovers something new, sometimes a treasure, sometimes a grotesquerie. Occasionally, it can be hard to tell which is which.
Reva’s writing is at its best when her dark humour and her eye for curious detail keep pace with each other; the best example of this is in “Miss USSR,” where a washed-up poet and an orphanage escapee set out to win and/or sabotage the competition for the most beautiful woman in the Soviet Union. Like all satisfying odd-couple stories, each enters into the arrangement looking for different things, only to find themselves united in an unexpected purpose. In less skilled hands, these figures might veer into trope territory, but Reva breathes a madcap life into them. This is true for nearly all the characters in Good Citizens Need Not Fear, including a mummified saint, a bejewelled cockroach, and a woman interested in both revenge and light bondage.
Melgaard and Reva find a common purpose in highlighting the absurdities of life, big and small. While their respective writing couldn’t differ more in tone or subject matter, both fundamentally ask the same question: is this it? Not as in, “Is this all there is?” but more like, “Is this collection of cruelties and curiosities really the thing we cling to so desperately?” The answer, of course, is yes, and in most cases we’ll keep clinging long past the point where it still makes sense. That is the truth both collections prod and poke at until it recoils.