(Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016)
In the best short-story collections, each successive story builds upon the previous, making the sum greater than the parts. Five-time Pushcart Prize winner Richard Burgin’s ninth short-story collection Don’t Think succeeds easily in that regard, with tight, thematic links between stories and an impressive tonal range that span from dark, depressing—even gross—to wildly humorous, subtle, and human. The narrators of Don’t Think are aging men anxiously obsessed with infinity, not as a mathematical concept but as shorthand for their fears that the world will seamlessly carry on its business long after they pass away. Burgin’s collection asks what part of a man’s life makes for the most lasting legacy—his art, his human connections, his children? Burgin’s characters, in ironic contrast to the collection’s title, think too much about their insignificance. Their foible-ridden and human worries about abstract ideas, like infinity, manifest in strange behaviors, weird societies, and odd coincidences.
The story “The House Visitor” begins: “It’s Halloween, and I’m in a house again.” The narrator is a cab driver who lets himself into empty homes. He doesn’t steal, nor is he particularly voyeuristic. He falls asleep in an easy chair. He fingers through the coats in the closet, careful to leave everything exactly as it was when he entered. Why he does this, he does not know. What makes this and so many other stories in the collection compelling is that, even as the narrators meticulously contemplate their own actions, their behaviors remain mysterious. “The House Visitor” reads like a psychiatric confession, but the confessor doesn’t care about forgiveness or absolution and instead only hopes to discover why he continually puts himself in a position of narrow escape.
If thinking about your legacy can make a mess of things as you get older, the situation doesn’t improve once you’ve passed. In “Of Course He Wanted to be Remembered,” two former students of a deceased art professor get together to reminisce about their former instructor. One of the women, Daneen, is writing a book about the professor and is hoping to use the other, Margo, as source material. Her book is intended to be a critical biography of the man’s work, but the two women find themselves unable to conjure much interest in the subject of his art—which may have never been that great anyway—and instead swap tales about their former instructor’s private, prurient side. The story, which is play-like and sparse, turns slowly into an intriguing meditation on how lives, even relatively unremarkable ones, lend themselves so poorly to the neatness of chapters and narrative arc.
In the collection’s eponymous and arguably most compelling story, Burgin writes:
“It’s deeply ironic how people believe art expands consciousness and therefore life when it actually does the opposite. Anything with a design, with a beginning, middle, and end is in opposition to infinity (or reality) and therefore is purposely a lie and a colossal deception. Art is the last illusion. Don’t wonder why your father told you this, you’ll never know.”
This second-person story is an interior monologue list of everything the narrator’s conscience instructs itself not to think about, which of course means jumping from one place of one psychic pain to another. The narrator’s pre-teen son has withdrawn from his friends and from the playground and instead researches data about countries online, drawing complicated maps of fictional kingdoms with complex histories. The complicated maps he draws mirror the aging narrator’s exposed psyche, compounding regret into a quagmire he can’t walk away from. This story is the most somber of the collection yet it possesses touching (but never sentimental) moments of humor, like the narrator’s son mishearing his Asperger’s diagnosis as “Asparagus Syndrome.” It hits poignantly on one of the book’s most compelling recurring themes, which is this idea that you may genuinely subscribe to a world view that acknowledges the smallness of one’s life, but doing so won’t make life’s pains any easier to handle. As the story concludes:
“It’s a good thing we have so many aches and pains as we get older or it would be too difficult to face the end. It’s selfish, in a way, to love a world where there is so much suffering. But don’t think of that. Think of your son’s laughter, his running up and down the hallway. Think of him snapping his fingers when he thinks no one can hear him, think of the love in his eyes.
Think of all of this as long as you can.”
If there is a weakness in the collection, it is that the narrators’s anxieties occasionally become too commonplace, but Burgin circumvents this concern for the most part with the specific eccentricities of his characters and the variegated worlds they inhabit. Take, for example, the fantastic elements of “V.I.N.” Here, infinity gets quasi-deified as the narrator, Rogers, becomes involved in a secret society that goes by the name V.I.N. (Victims of Infinity and Nothingness). The group has a bit of an AA vibe, except what every member is trying to stay clean from is any behavior that could be considered trifling in light of, well, the infinite. Rogers is invited to join V.I.N. by his younger friend, Whitman, who at Rogers’s first meeting charismatically testifies about “the death of establishment morality and the birth of infinity-based behavior.” “Infinity-based behavior” turns out to refer almost exclusively to taking drugs and drinking and having sex in the meeting house with the door open. Post-sex party, Whitman, who is the group’s second-in-command, begins to resemble a small town politician or petty PTA member.
“I don’t think you’re stupid [Whitman said.] I think like the club says, you’re a victim of the infinity and nothingness. I want you to think about that some more. And also think about voting for me in next month’s election. Ok?”
He doesn’t let Rogers leave until Rogers assures him he has his vote. Whitman, like everyone else in Don’t Think, has acknowledged his own mortality and insignificance only to find the worries of life still there, all-encompassing.
RYAN KRULL teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.