Review of Richard Burgin’s Don’t Think

by Miriam Kotzin

Richard Burgin.  Don’t Think. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2016.  184 pp.

Richard Burgin's Don’t Think is a superb book, a remarkable addition to his substantial, impressive oeuvre. The dark, sometimes bizarre, sensibility of his earlier work that once made Joyce Carol Oates compare him to Poe, remains, but it is joined in this volume with a more hopeful side.  Together these joined forces make Burgin one of best and most eloquent writers of the American short story.

Like his earlier writing, this collection of stories is both accessible as well as profound—and more than occasionally funny. Burgin’s ninth collection of short stories returns to his life-long exploration of memory’s power to comfort or torture, its role in creating identity, and its slippery relation to the truth.  

The eponymous “Don’t Think” naturally uses the second person, and by naming what must not be thought of, creates it. The ruminations and reminiscing, the regrets and recriminations take place as the protagonist talks to himself while he waits for his son to arrive for his shared custody time with him. The opening line is nostalgic and idyllic, “Don’t think of the roses on the trellis overhead—you motoring through, captain of your tricycle…” The story is filled with the losses of a life intensely lived. The love of his son outweighs all the negatives in his life, and much of the story is devoted to the habits of the protagonist’s son, and their custom of telling stories together, stories that are never written down.

As for stories that are written down:  “Don’t think of literature, the most pathetic of all religions, with its church of art that enforces the belief that great art will endure forever. Don’t think of how we constantly misuse words like ‘forever’ without grasping their meaning. We could not bear it if we did. And avoid the thought that if the world ends we’ll lose everything in art including Shakespeare and Beethoven but if the world goes on forever they’ll be lost and forgotten as well.”

In “Of Course He Wanted To Be Remembered,” two young women, talk about their professor, with whom each has had an intense relationship and discuss his theories: “‘your memory is your fiction’ “ and “ ‘memory has no objective basis in reality’ ” and “ ‘Personal memory is the first casualty of infinity. Cultural memory is the second’.”

The power of memory is one of the themes in “Uncle Ray.” The protagonist chooses a vacation destination taking into account his memories.  Visiting his parents would mean possibly being “ambushed not only by a possible fight in the present but by any one of a number of lurking, only temporarily hidden memories that could suddenly appear and shock you, as if your memory were playing hide-and- seek with you.” He chose a place based on his belief that going there will mean being surrounded by only pleasant memories, but, when he’s on the raft in the lake, discovers, instead, a negative memory of a sexual ambush by “Uncle” Ray, who had propositioned him when he was a “young thirteen.” The reader may remember Little Red Riding Hood’ comment to the wolf, “What big teeth you have!” as “Uncle” Ray, whose self-presentation was genial and, avuncular  “had a fairly toothy smile, too; his front teeth were often visible…” 

The protagonist of “Don’t Think” says, “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.”

These stories celebrate the redemption offered by even the smallest kind gesture, such as found in the close of “Of Course He Wanted To Be Remembered,” in which a dying professor opens “his umbrella and sheltered [a young woman] from the rain.”

Over the years, Burgin has written about a number of imaginary societies, among them are:  The Identity Club, Memo, Oblivion, The Global Justice Society, and, here. V.I.N.—Victims of Infinity and Nothingness: “We see a little bit of infinity and then we become a permanent part of nothingness…” 

Connect this thought with what the protagonist of “Don’t Think” says, having first  “beg[u]n thinking about infinity and the limits of consciousness” when he realized he’d never become a composer. “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.”

Two of the nine stories in Don’t Think were published in Per Contra: “The Chill,”[] and “Olympia.” []

Don’t Think is another first-rate book on the shelf devoted to Richard Burgin’s writing: works that have won him a reputation for masterful, darkly comic forays into contemporary angst and the human condition, ameliorated by acts of kindness and honest love. His is an extraordinary, invaluable voice in contemporary fiction.