Industrial Worker Book Reveiw: 8 Hours to Work, 8 Hours to Sleep, 8 Hours to Read

Richard Burgin ,
"Shadow Traffic"

Johns Hopkins University Press
2011

William Hastings, editor, Industrial Worker Book Review

Lu Chi, in his Wen Fu ("Prose-poem on Writing"), wrote that "when making an axe handle, the pattern is not far off." Indeed. And, it depends on our models. After all, one cannot live like a mouse and write like a lion, as someone else said.

When we sit down to write there is a humility to the act given to us by knowing who looks over our shoulder. Melville, Shakespeare, Dante, Abdulrahman Munif, Walt Whitman and hosts of others equally as worthy, sit behind us to remind our attempts, our struggle, there's much farther to go. Any writer who lacks this feeling makes it readily apparent in their writing. Why else do we get Colson Whitehead writing about zombies?

Finishing Richard Burgin's Shadow Traffic leaves one with the impression there is yet another great writer out there to humble you when you sit down to write. Which is as it should be. Burgin's writing at the top of his powers.

Shadow Traffic is a collection of short stories and one of the most tightly sequenced books I have read yet. Each story ebbs and flows thematically and symbolically into the next so the final series of impressions the reader is left with expands outward from the book's core in expanding rings. Much of the power the stories generate both individually and collectively comes from Burgin's very quiet style of storytelling. His is not the whiz-bang pyrotechnics of the Barry Hannah school (which I love), or the raw-knuckle concrete poetry of Larry Fondation. Instead, he has refined the techniques Frank O'Connor and later Andre Dubus would come close to perfecting. Burgin writes a very clean line, flowing one sentence right into the next without disjunction or jazz rhythm, an old storyteller allowing the characters and theme to do all the work. And what characters. Each rises off the page like a claw reaching for you, defined, moving, ready to shift and pull when it needs to. Take his beginning to the story "The Interview":

The jeans were a disaster—a failure on every level. Not sexy enough, not classy enough, too preppy, like something from a different era.

In the first two sentences, without any description of the person wearing them, you are left with a clear picture of the body the jeans are meant for: anxiety ridden, nervous, insecure, concerned with plastics of society and the flashbulbs. Louise Leloch, the "bona fide Hollywood sex symbol" at the core of the story, is there breathing for you. Bad writers use more words to do far less. Pay attention, Wells Tower, to what I just said.

But we cannot read a book solely for stylistic innovation or perfection. We must demand of our writers a level of vision and inquiry that pushes the horizons of literature forward. One of the downsides to a literary society obsessed with craft is that we do not speak too often of vision, of The Muse, and it is for our literature's loss. It is, after all, the depth of vision that separates one writer from another. Burgin's subtlety of style becomes a bedrock foundation from which he peels away the layers of his vision, which is ultimately his inquiry into the human mystery.  With subsequent readings the depth he achieves in each story astonishes. In two stories, "Caeser" and "Memorial Day," Burgin quotes from T.S. Eliot to underpin his thematic core. In "Caeser" he writes: 

"There is a poem by T.S. Eliot," Malcolm continued, "I hope I'm not confusing him with W.H. Auden, no seriously, it is from Eliot. Anyway, he wrote 'we had the experience but missed the meaning.' Do you identify with any of this?"

In "Memorial Day" Burgin will repeat the quote, but because of different characters, a different conflict, the idea of having an experience and missing the meaning changes slightly. It deepens. Many, if not all, the characters inhabiting Shadow Traffic experience something profound enough to change their lives, but all of them will undoubtably miss the meaning of the experience. Burgin circles this idea, penetrating it anew in each story, shading its nuances and textures differently each time. In doing so we are left with a depth of vision too often missing from writers today, especially in the short story collections many of them are putting out. Still aping Raymond Carver or not pushing the form of flash fiction far enough to generate depth of feeling, many writers do not allow their obsessions (if they have any) to rise to the surface. Unlike Burgin, they do not explore their attitudes toward the human experience. Shadow Traffic is above all else exactly that, a tightly composed symphony of inquiry into the human experience. Essential for good fiction, but remarkable in Shadow Traffic because Burgin in most of the stories focuses in on the ordinary to draw out both his conflicts and his inquiry. There is violence in some of these stories, yes, but violence is not the lynchpin Burgin uses to push his characters and themes forward. The violence in "The Dolphin" says less about the character with the gun than it does about Parker, the main character. Burgin's focus on the ordinary is the older writer, the older philosopher seeing the small events of a life contain all the weight and power of the major ones. In fact, as Burgin shows in these stories, it is in the small events where the drama of a life is decided. It is the master that can make the drama of a gunfight unfold in an evening party without a weapon being drawn ("The Group"). 

And since the characters, as we ourselves often do, miss the meaning of what they go through, the reader, by virtue of their being removed from the situation, is able to grasp and explore the meaning Burgin infuses his stories with. Then, like our best literature, Shadow Traffic expands our own sense of meaning.

Two stories in particular must be made note of. "Memo and Oblivion" and "The Justice Society" are textbook examples of how to stray from realism while never losing sight of writing's power to make both commentary and provide a way of deepening the mystery. In "Memo and Oblivion" two designer drugs allow people to either remember everything, Memo, or to forget, Oblivion. In a society as obsessed with capturing "reality" in all its facets for public consumption, while at the same time creating newer, better and cheaper ways to get high (is it any wonder the meth epidemic is happening now?), Burgin's story mines the questions and psychologies behind these dueling desires. In "The Justice Society" a group has been created to eliminate any injustice a person faces, be it from marriage to the National Book Awards. Both stories are set in worlds so similar to ours they appear real, and the fantastical element is tuned so right, so spot on as metaphor and symbol, the stories never lose their ability to make commentary. They force the reader to question his own perceptions. In the midst of a zombie/vampire craze we see writers taking tropes that have already been done to death (after Richard Matheson there is not a need for a national vampire literature) and not expanding the trope to say something new, to provide us with a new angle into the mysteries of being human. The best science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism uses aspects of our experience and turns them into symbols and metaphor to expand our sense of what is and what could be. Burgin, in these two stories, proves himself to be a master of showing how to expand the possibility of literature without falling into mindless repetition. 

The virtues of the book are nearly endless. Whether Burgin questions what a home is symbolic of ("Single-Occupant House" and "The House") or probes into the tensions between fathers and sons ("Mission Beach") he never fails to reward the reader with much to think about, much to feel. Shadow Traffic is a special book, one worth repeated readings, one worth taking to the bar to read over eight beers and a whiskey on a rainy day. It is one to pass around.  It is an example of a pattern for great literature (thought you must break from it and strike out on your own). It is a horizon far ahead of the majority of short fiction writers working today.

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