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Watching the clock: Characters grapple with time and tragedy in short stories

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Polly Dugan's stories are melancholy in theme but peppered with pretty passages.

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Polly Dugan's stories are melancholy in theme but peppered with pretty passages.

In So Much a Part of You, her first collection of short stories, Polly Dugan's characters are the perpetual victims of bad timing; time either goes too fast or moves too slowly for their liking. But it doesn't stop them from trying to work against the clock, to manipulate time, even as they know it's impossible.

An American writer and graduate of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, Dugan received an honourable mention in Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers in 2009. She is currently working on her second book, to be published next spring, and lives in Portland, Ore. with her husband, two sons and, according to her website, "an enormous black Labrador retriever and a yard sale cat."

So Much a Part of You moves through the Depression to present day, beginning with The Third Rail, the first of 10 interconnected stories. In it, John, a young boy, loses his friend to influenza. He consoles himself by tinkering with clocks, for all the good it does.

"It gives John great comfort to control and manipulate the tools that measure time, keep it, record its passing... He can dissect the clocks and put them back together again, but he can't influence them, can't skip through it."

In the aptly named A Matter of Time, Anna is plagued by her father's obsession that she not be late when he picks her up from her horseback-riding lesson. When Anna's trainer instructs her to walk the horse to cool it down, she knows there will be consequences, but is hopeful that somehow she can "suspend or dilute the perception of time enough so that her father won't notice."

Dugan's writing is semi-sweet, melancholy in its themes but peppered with pretty passages.

"Though Anna clenches her fists in her lap, she calms herself and measures the passing seconds by telling herself again and again -- like a mantra that will save her -- but the pony was cool, the pony was cool, the pony was cool until they arrived home."

Similarly, Dugan's writing skills come to the fore in the longest and perhaps most poignant of her stories, Paying the Piper. Caitlin learns that her college roommate, Anne, is pregnant. The father is Anne's boyfriend, Peter, whom Caitlin also dated briefly the year before, and who also got her pregnant. As Peter did not reciprocate her feelings, abortion seemed like her only option.

Caitlin recalls how following the procedure, she sought solace in the darkness of a movie theatre, at a matinee of the '80s blockbuster Against All Odds. Dugan's prose somehow perfectly captures both the cruel banality of the situation and the heart of a young woman's anguish:

"(T)hat Phil Collins song played forever -- Take a look at me now -- and Caitlin wept until she couldn't cry anymore. Later she imagined the audience was all just a bunch of girls who'd taken the day off to have an abortion."

Years later, in Legacies, Peter finds himself happily ensconced in a new relationship with Anna -- from the earlier story A Matter of Time. Though he floundered after his painful breakup with Anne, he learns that if we're lucky, life gives us another chance -- and more time -- to get things right, acknowledging that Anna's "almost identical name" signifies a kind of "redemption and do-over."

What follows in the last few stories are some novel surprises; Dugan even pulls off a curious plot twist that, surprisingly, works. She also brings the circle to a close, tying in connections with characters from previous stories.

The trials and personal disasters that take place throughout are set beside actual world events, devastating and far-reaching: terrorist attacks, the explosion of the space shuttle, 9/11.

One may argue that Dugan does so in order to downplay the everyday troubles, or to offer some perspective. Or perhaps she only means to say that our personal tragedies are no less earth-shattering to those that live through them.

 

Lindsay McKnight works in the arts in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2014 G8

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Updated on Saturday, June 21, 2014 at 8:23 AM CDT: Formatting.

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