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The Conference on Beautiful Moments by Richard Burgin

Reviewed by Robert Zaller

            Richard Burgin’s voice is what takes you in.  It can be casual to the point of breeziness, but with an undertone of insinuation that, like a street-corner whisper, at once draws you in deeper and warns you against following; it treats you almost obsessively to detail while seeming to withhold the one thing you need to know; it never loses its cheerful, dogged note even when describing the absolutely horrific; it has a nugget of ice at its center.  It is, in short, the perfect instrument of urban anomie, and over the course of several fiction collections and a novel, Ghost Quartet, it has carved out a distinctive and unmistakable place in American letters.

            Burgin’s new collection, The Conference on Beautiful Moments, represents him in peak form. His protagonists, typically, are solitary and insecure.  Some are criminally insane, though they rarely tip their hand before they’ve caught their prey.  Their common quality is a restless banality; they are both hypersensitive and profoundly unaware.  They seem to exist in a two-dimensional continuum from which something important has been anxiously but unnameably omitted.  When it appears, it is usually in the form of disaster.

            If Burgin’s world suggests Hell, it may well be.  As the unnamed female narrator of “Dates in Hell” observes, “It’s not true that people in Hell don’t realize it, just like it’s not true that Hell is a place reserved for the dead.”  Hell is in fact coterminous with ordinary life, with the single proviso that its inhabitants are equally alienated both from one another and from themselves.  This leads to predation as the only pursuit in which contact can be attempted, though of course the effort, whatever its result, is in vain. 

            The true signature of Hell is, however, the inability to distinguish between tormentors and tormented.  Burgin sometimes takes the former’s point of view and sometimes the latter’s, but, in either case, the terms are perpetually shifting:  predators blame their victims, victims feel vaguely guilty toward their predators.  With identity forever out of reach, his characters can only resort to role-playing, only to find that even more destabilizing. 

            The two most chilling tales in the present collection are “The Second Floor” and “Mayor Bat.”  In the first, ‘Jerry’ (names, too, are negotiable in Burgin) picks up Cincy, a strung-out hooker in a park.  He installs her on the ground floor of his home, asking only that she dress and look as much as possible like the girl who seems to have been his preceding victim.  Even when she discovers his secret, however, she does not flee, perhaps indifferent to her fate.  A similar scenario plays itself out in “Mayor Bat,” but in a more violent and concentrated form, and if the worst does not occur, we are left in little doubt that it someday will.  In each case, the victimizer insists on his own victim-hood, and the victim is made complicit in her own degradation.  If the most radical evil consists in eradicating the very notion of evil, these stories suggest how the process may work.

            The moral climate in most of Burgin’s work is grayer.  In “Jonathan and Lillian,” a Hollywood man-eater prepares to devour her latest (and eminently willing) prey, while his predecessor waits in the wings, plotting a revenge that leaves, in the end, only the taste of suicide in his mouth.  In “Cruise,” two strangers agree to share their worst secret with one another to plumb their own self-loathing, only to add false pardon to symbolic punishment.

            Redemption is not to be sought in these stories, but in “Uncle Simon and Gene” and “Duck Pills,” innocence at least suggests a more compassionate perspective on the damaged lives of adulthood, and, in “Vivian and Sid Break Up,” Burgin even offers something like a happy ending.  These grace notes, however, only serve to set off the dark vision of his other tales.  The title story, with which the book concludes, returns us to the world of deception and menace that is his trademark.  Dansforth, a staff writer for an “alternative weekly,” infiltrates a New Agey conference that, originally academic, now pits participants against one another in aesthetic oneupsmanship.  This, of course, inverts the theme of “Cruise,” whose protagonists vie to expose their shame.  It also recalls an earlier and justly celebrated Burgin story, “The Identity Club,” whose members assume the personae of admired celebrities, but also share their fates.  When Dansforth’s own imposture is revealed, he finds himself, like Remy in “The Identity Club,” trapped in a sinister labyrinth from which, despite flight, there can be no final escape.

            Burgin’s work taps into the rich fictional vein that runs from Poe to Lovecraft to Philip K. Dick, via Kafka.  He moves easily among the genres of the paranormal and the paranoiac--horror, science fiction, the detective story--taking elements from each without settling on any.  Like Kafka, he finds the kernel of the absurd in the most ordinary experience, and the ordinary in the absurd:  the bureaucratic sublime that has become the common touchstone of modern life.  From story to story, book to book, he has created a world that counterfeits our own, the more truly to reveal it.


Richard Burgin.  The Conference on Beautiful Moments.  Johns Hopkins University Press.  2007.  175 pages.  $40 hardback, $18.95 paper.


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Per Contra Spring 2007