The first thing that strikes you about Alex Pugsley’s writing is how well he handles dialogue. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, given that his career has been spent as a writer for film and television, where dialogue rules, but there’s more to it. Shimmer is Pugsley’s first collection of short stories and was preceded by a well-received novel, Aubrey McKee, although many, maybe most, of the ten stories in Shimmer were written long before the novel. The first story in the collection, “Deedee at the 7-Eleven,” was published by the former literary journal Blood & Aphorisms in 1996!
The stories vary, of course, but there seems to be a combined theme that, though expressed in very different ways in each story, seems to unite them: the dynamic of how relationships develop a person’s self-awareness. And in two areas, Pugsley has a particular talent. The first, to no surprise, is his knowledge of the mechanisms and personalities of the film and television industry. The second, perhaps again owing to his experience in that industry, is his facility with the thoughts and dialogue of teenagers. It is really quite striking.
That first story, “Deedee at the 7-Eleven,” deals with a back-and-forth debate among four high-schoolers. The narrator, Veeper, stands outside a 7-Eleven in the snow discussing with his friend Wendell whether to go to a party hosted by Deedee, Wendell’s on-and-off girlfriend. They discuss the presence at the party of Deedee’s new boyfriend, Eddie. Then two girls, Sheri and Celeste, show up. Through them, the focus turns to Wendell and his failings. At this point Veeper becomes in essence a spectator, smoking a du Maurier and wondering if he wants to go to the party at all.
The last and title story in the collection is Shimmer, which takes place at Deedee’s party. Here Celeste narrates as she wanders from person to person, getting drunk and trying to figure out what the point is in being at the party. She feels alone. She wants to figure out whom she should be with both as friends—male and female—and boyfriends. She talks to Veeper but finds him weird. Sheri is hanging out with a grade-nine boy. Her on-and-off boyfriend is at the party as well, but she doesn’t want to talk to him. She feels permanently done with him. Where does she belong?
The teenage insecurity of identity and the sense of needing to belong appear in different forms in the other stories in this collection. A young model on the verge of quitting the industry endures the range of industry types at a post-fashion-show party. A man at a bar recalls his stepbrother who lived hard, drank hard and worked in the mines. An over-worked actress debates having a relationship with a well-known actor. A woman in therapy questions her relationships with her father, her ex-husband, and her current partner. And more. All ask essentially the same question: Who am I, and do I belong here, in this life, in this job, with these people?
Pugsley brings out the confusion of life well. No one is in control. Everyone has doubts about themselves and others. His ability to show the twists and turns of our constant, anxious questioning of ourselves makes each story revelatory in a different way. A truly impressive collection!
Shimmer is published by Biblioasis.