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The novel celebrates its creator’s quadricentennial this year. Miguel Cervantes died in 1616, a year after publishing the second volume of Don Quixote, which gave the world its first hero whose life was lived not in travel, adventure, and war, but within the confines of his own head. The novel is about the hero of personality, and — the many inroads of modernism notwithstanding — it remains so. The novel is also, by common consent, the paradigm model for fiction. But another form may well be more demanding and has known far fewer truly successful practitioners: the short story.
Like novels, most short stories need a central figure or voice, but they can’t develop it in any first-person depth. This constraint leads to the essential predicament of modernism: We hear what we’re being told, but we’re never quite sure whom we’re hearing it from.
Richard Burgin, whose new collection is provocatively titled Don’t Think, is an American master of the short story: part Cheever in his penetrating social observation, part Poe in the uncanniness of his tales. (Full disclosure: He’s my former colleague on the Drexel University faculty.)
Fear of maturity
Don’t think: It’s the one command that must meet defiance, yet the one prerequisite for entering a short story’s world. The command begins the title story and tolls throughout it. The imperative voice renders the reader himself its initial subject until a gradual accretion of detail yields the figure of an aging father whose son has Asperger’s, with whom he builds a fantasy world they can both safely inhabit — at a price. If your world is going to be safe, there are many things indeed you mustn’t think about, and that fact makes your refuge deeply fragile and precarious.
We all begin, of course, with a fantasy world, since the one outside is so largely unmapped. Growing up is a process of replacing one’s private fantasy with the collective one that others seem to have adopted but that we secretly view with suspicion. The protagonist of “Don’t Think” wants to protect his son and be protected by him; the son’s inability (or refusal) to accept maturity meshes with the father’s desire be disburdened of it. As so often in a Burgin story, these are trajectories never fated to cross but, equally, impossible to escape.
For Burgin, childhood is confusion (and the compulsive behavior that the child wards it off with). Adulthood brings clarity — of a sort — but, with it, unassuageable loneliness. Personal relationships boil down to joyless sex; collective relationships always involve a con, as in “Victims of Infinity and Nothingness,” an organization in Burgin’s story “V.I.N.” that seems a sendup of Kafka and Kierkegaard and chiefly offers “Good drugs at a fair price.” Meaning and solace appear somehow only a conversation away, but that conversation never occurs, or, if attempted, never achieves genuine exchange.
In “The House Visitor,” the protagonist is a cab driver who scouts out homes he can break into, not for the purpose of theft but simply temporary habitation. The condition, of course, is that no one be at home, the very absence of others being what makes it “home.”
A more practical accommodation occurs in “The Intruder,” in which “Arthur” — possibly the protagonist’s name, possibly not — is elderly, housebound, and alone. He discovers a young, homeless intruder named Desi who has been sleeping in his basement. When their mutual fright subsides, the two warily strike a bargain. Arthur has reached the point at which survival is chiefly fear of death; Desi possesses a youth that is utterly useless to her. Both will take something from each other, but neither with true acknowledgment — perhaps, as Burgin suggests, that is all one can really ask of human encounters.
“Olympia” is the longest story in the collection and the only one that describes a more than brief or casual relationship between adults. Even here, however, there is a disparity that suggests the unequal station of parent-child relations. The narrator — “Darling” is as close as he gets to a name, although the names of the rich and famous are dropped throughout the story, suggesting that he isn’t really entitled to one — meets Olympia at a party, is hired to photograph her, and is willingly bedded after a shoot. Olympia is a grande dame, a famous beauty, and a successful promoter and businesswoman; in fact, she has it all, except talent and the youth that is behind her.
What she gets from the narrator, apart from sex, isn’t clear, although her fondness for him seems genuine and she tries to promote what will never be a significant career. It’s the narrator who finally breaks things off, to accept the mediocrity that is his fate but also his only accomplishment. There is no punch line or dénouement— just the experience of two people oceans apart whom a tide inexplicably throws together.
Peace, sort of
What do infinity and nothingness feel like, for real? What is the objective correlative for metaphysical despair? The narrator of “The Chill,” who as a child asks an unanswered question about the wind, begins to suffer an inexplicable sensation of cold that aims itself at his neck. The malady continues into adulthood; it comes and goes unpredictably, resisting all diagnosis, but it makes a wreck of his life—intolerable when it strikes, an anxious absence when it doesn’t. The warmth of others might possibly alleviate it, but company is hard to find and exploitive or inadequate when it appears.
There seems nothing for the narrator to do but to shiver out his days. A chance encouraging nod from a neighbor — not an actual invitation, just an acknowledgment of his existence — warms him, however, and sends him into a deep, restorative sleep. It isn’t a cure, or even a reprieve, but it is a safe, protected moment. “Peace is temporary,” the narrator thinks, “but always blessed.”
It might be Richard Burgin’s motto.
What, When, Where
Don’t Think: Stories. By Richard Burgin. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. $19.95 paperback. Click here.
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