By Richard Burgin
Johns Hopkins University Press. 280 pp. $30
Where exactly do we draw the line between so-called genre fiction and its more "literary" counterpart?
Subject matter plays a role, of course - if it's got a dragon on the cover it's probably a fantasy story, and we all know how murder mysteries tend to unfold - but the difference is generally thought to run deeper than that. Very occasionally, a writer is so good the work transcends its category. A similar, but possibly more interesting case, is the writer who appears to ignore the need for the distinction altogether.
Readers who are familiar with Richard Burgin's work (this is his 15th book) won't be surprised that most of the stories in this new collection are shot through with a creeping feeling, an unease that grows throughout the course of the story. Burgin has an instinctive feel for the things in everyday life that are just a little bit wrong, like adults who act more naive than they have any right to be, or houses that don't make any of the "little sounds that houses make" but instead are "as silent as a vault in a museum."
"Memo and Oblivion" in particular reads like a blend of horror and science fiction (though "Do You Like This Room" feels a little bit like what would happen if Edgar Allan Poe went on a date). Set within the confines of a sort of cult, it deals with two very contemporary ideas: overmedication and the longing for a clean slate, a return to innocence. (Memo and Oblivion are both names of pharmaceutical drugs, you see.) "The House," too, has a disturbing premise: A house and its eerie inhabitants lull visitors into a sense of safety before imprisoning them in something resembling a kind of suburban Dracula's castle.
But the truth is, though the stories are sometimes scary, most of them are far from supernatural. Most often they're about obsessive, lopsided relationships; tortured memories; the panicky angst of aging; in other words, the (mostly unhappy) stuff of everyday adult life. Indeed, most of Burgin's storytellers are men who, whatever else they're doing, are also trying to negotiate some uncomfortable response to women, to smooth-talk them into bed, or "conquer" them by getting their attention in some other way.
It's not only sex, but gender too, as an idea, that haunts the collection. In Burgin's world, the line between the sexes is either rigid, and continuously defined - even the decor of rooms is described as either masculine or feminine - or, at the other end of the spectrum, rather free-floating, with male narrators who think more like women, or characters who find their own intuitions and desires sadly out of sync. (In the story "The Dolphin," a man finds out the prostitute he was about to take home with him is a woman "in every way but one." He refuses her but suspects, with inexplicable unhappiness, that he "knew it all along.")
This interest in men and women and the space between them is probably the book's central struggle, and it comes across as more complex and unusual than the average battle-of-the-sexes stuff even when it's disappointingly predictable.
Yet some of Burgin's narrators come across as strangely bland, describing people and situations to themselves and to us as "attractive" and "really nice." Sometimes this unadorned, just-folks storytelling technique is effective in creating camaraderie, as when the narrator makes use of wry or explanatory parenthetical asides, another unusual technique Burgin employs often. Other times, it feels odd and stilted, and it's not easy to pinpoint exactly what Burgin is trying to accomplish with these characters unless they're meant to be Bret Easton Ellis-style, empty-eyed psychotics.
The narrator of "Memorial Day," true to the story's title, spends the summer holiday by a pool reminiscing about his one great, lost love. It's an engaging love story that's realistically complicated, but Gerry, our narrator, spells the whole thing out for us, and the story ends on a falsely sweet note that doesn't ring quite right or true.
No, it's in his creepy, caustic stories that Burgin writes most naturally, most enjoyably. He's good with a one-liner, as in "The Dealer," when a guy has just been left at a gas station in a rough neighborhood. ("It was like a mini-mall for the unsavory.") Then there's "The Group," his vicious story about writers. His protagonist, who reluctantly attends a party thrown by his writing group to celebrate a fellow member's recent Pulitzer win, calls the others "blowhards," "self-deluded braggart[s]," "dutiful postmodernist[s]." What a bunch! Like "Memorial Day," this story has a touching ending, but it feels more honest for its likably grouchy attitude.
Likewise, "Single-Occupant Home" reads smoothly, deliciously, as Burgin's narrator tells us exactly how (if not precisely why) he has taken to breaking into people's houses, only to drift through them in a dreamy, distracted way, like a depressed ghost.
It's these kinds of people Burgin seems to understand the best; these are the ones who provide the most interesting (and unsettling) pieces of wisdom. This particular loony tells us he sees actual magic in the knickknacks in a stranger's house because they were collected to "save memories," without which we'd all be like "a giant flock of crazed bats."
This is not a rant but an unusual, useful insight, delivered in a pleasingly spooky package, and it's in moments like these that Burgin really shines. "When you're in someone's house it's like being in their mind. . . . Not that its mind is everywhere, but you'll find it in one of its rooms. When you find it, it's strangely satisfying - you're no longer alone then."