A Thousand Natural Shocks
By Richard Burgin
Goliad Press. 446 pp. $14.99.
Reviewed by Miriam N. Kotzin
No one would mistake Richard Burgin's A Thousand Natural Shocks for beach reading. Burgin's stories are far more elegant, imaginative, and profound; these 24 stories are remarkable because although they are all character-driven, many also offer pulse-thumping suspense.
Burgin is the author of three novels, nine other collections of short fiction, two book-length interviews, and is the founding editor of the esteemed literary journal Boulevard. This collection, which includes work from the 50 years of Burgin's writing career along with previously uncollected fiction, further establishes him as a contemporary master of the short story.
Three of these stories represent a recurring inventive frame. The protagonist joins a fictional imaginary organization, which turns out to be dangerous: "The Identity Club," "Memo and Oblivion," and "The Conference on Beautiful Moments." Each organization has strict rules, and like a baited trap, it's possible to get in but not out. Bait includes the attraction of possible friendships and sexual liaisons, but is also specific to the organization.
In "The Identity Club," for example, members assume the identity of an artist they admire: performance style, appearance, dress — the catch being that they have to die at the same age as that person. In "Memo and Oblivion," competing groups offer drugs that enhance memory — or destroy it, playing on competing desires for the total recall of happy moments and the erasure of painful events or thoughts.
The origin of the title is Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy. No surprise, then, that the protagonists are not only introspective. Speaking of memory, a character in "Of Course He Wanted to Be Remembered" says, "Personal memory is the first casualty of infinity. Cultural memory is the second." In "The Identity Club," one says this about aging: "the old are just the reincarnation of the young. In fact, strictly speaking, each moment of time you reincarnated yourself since you always had to attain a balance between your core, unchanging self and your constantly changing one." And of time and mortality, a character in "The Follower" says, "Chronological time is to real time what clothes are to the naked body. Its purpose is to hide real time just as clothes exist to cover our naked, helpless flesh."
This volume also represents Burgin's dark, crackling humor, his satire of literary salons and writing groups, of the glitterati, and of the self-congratulatory politically correct. He is a keen observer of foibles and of quirks of language, a trait he gives his characters. One notes that calling the wrong people sir "is a national sport." Love is characterized as "just tolerated disappointment." Even loss is a subject for wit: Women "were put here on earth so we would know what losing is. Even when we have them we lose them … We lose our mothers, too, and then our wives become our mothers and we lose them again. We lose our mothers a second time."
Anxiety and loneliness bedevil the characters of A Thousand Natural Shocks. The men yearn for relationships, and not only with women. In five of these stories the protagonists explore ambiguous sexuality or homosexuality.
Men hire street hookers not just for sex, but also for someone to share their bed. One character breaks into empty homes to experience the life of the family. Another carries the urn of his mother's ashes everywhere, showing how impossible it is to escape family history. Yet another says he pictures heaven "as a place where men can walk together at an easy pace, not afraid to look at each other."
They surmount their torment when they do a simple act of kindness: sheltering someone from the rain by holding an umbrella, helping an elderly woman who's fallen in the snow. They're remembered, they're saved, not by being heroic, but by looking outside themselves to care for another person. A father's unselfish love for his son is a recurring theme.
Five of these stories won a Pushcart Prize, and "The Identity Club" was the lead story in The Best American Mysteries of 2004. A Thousand Natural Shocks, a collection of impressive, eminently readable and powerful explorations of the human psyche, is a good introduction to Burgin's work.
Miriam N. Kotzin is a poet and writer of fiction, most recently a collection of stories, Country Music (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2017).