Texas Review Press
Review by Colin Fleming
To say that that the novella and the ten stories that comprise Richard Burgin’s Hide Island are difficult to read would give the kind of lie that only storytellers like Burgin—a literary trickster—can give. When we speak of a work of literature as being arduous, what we tend to mean is that the prose is thorny, and that we are held back in ways that speak to a writer’s failings. Not so with Hide Island, which is an emotionally arduous read, but a book whose narratives—and the ways in which the prose makes those narratives unfold—impels a reader ever onward; onward, even, to places, and emotional settings, where one does not wish to tarry long. But so it also goes in the work of Poe or Gogol, and so it goes in the world of Hide Island.
Burgin is a kind of modern day Poe, albeit one who deals in a different kind of macabre arena. Terror—which is often interlaced with humor that both makes you wince and cracks you up—stems from an inability for people to connect, to grow through others, in these works, despite a desperate need for these protagonists to do just that. A friend of mine who is a Burgin fan once remarked, “I feel like I’m the main character every time I read one of his stories, even though, on most levels, I know I’m not like that character. And yet, I can’t help feeling as though I’m him as I read.”
Good luck not having this sensation when reading something like “The Endless Visit.” Unlike a lot of writers, Burgin pulls from a vast range of areas and subjects. And so a story like this features everything from riffs on the visual arts to Westerns to the very nature of friendship itself. Barbara is an abstract artist who also fancies herself a pensée. She speaks on endlessly to Carla, a token friend who does what many purported friends do: fake listens, if you will. Burgin gets this. It’s why true friendship is rare in his work, just as it’s rare in the external world. He shows us how one goes about the motions of a friendship, while simultaneously facing a torrent of words—words that, at first, don’t appear to mean much, but which give away more about their speaker than the speaker intends. Before you know it, the story has morphed into a kind of abuse chronicle, the quotidian becoming the harrowing.
Burgin does that alchemical trick better than anyone. His literary world is its own kind of heart of darkness, but what must be noted is that there is a heart in place. Being large-hearted is more about quality than quantity, and the depth of those moments of quality. Burgin the prose stylist knows—and perhaps this has something to do with his musical background—that what you leave out can tell even more than what you put in, and absence bolsters what is there. “The Memory Center,” the novella that in some ways encapsulates all of Hide Island, underscores this idea by featuring a gambit that works both as ingenious plot device, and metaphorical flourish. Burgin is one of those writers who hits upon those sort of “why didn’t I think of that” ideas that other writers—and even readers—think that they should be able to come up with, although, of course, they rarely do. For that’s the ability that is the crux of Burgin’s storytelling talents. In “The Memory Center,” two competing drug issuers battle it out in a big pharma market where one company wants to help people forget, while another wants to enhance memory. Proust would not know what to do with himself here, whereas Borges and Poe would delight and applaud. But there is that push and pull again: the idea of something being removed accentuating that which remains. Even when we do not consciously—or on most levels—know about it. Because here, as in all of Burgin’s work, reality is inviolable. It is reality that is sacrosanct. It is us who see how well or poorly we do as humans by how we withstand that reality, how we are either adaptive to it, or how we succumb in view of it, retreating and forgetting and diminishing and hiding as we do so, relegating ourselves to something like the titular island of this collection.
“The Diary of an Invalid” offers, if not a way out, counsel. Burgin, for all of the attendant creepiness that makes you think you should be reading along with “Night on Bald Mountain” playing on the stereo, can formulate moments that have the ring of a Pascalian pensée, or the cool, necessary logic of a Socratic pronouncement. The title suggests Gogol, but the prose is pure Burgin. A character stumps for the importance of identity. After all, identity, and finding your identity—or inventing a fake one that you can get yourself to adapt to—is big business, but as the story develops, we see how this kind of rhetoric, so in march with our times, can be a smokescreen that allows us to distance ourselves from dirty work, which is to say, emotional work—going in to where one would prefer not to go. And so we get the line, “Courage, in the end, is all we have.” Yes. Which is great if you have it, but how many people truly do? Which is to say, most people have nothing. And the possessor of courage is fronted with a world of individuals who do not understand what he has, what makes him who he is. The courageous man, then, is cut apart from his fellows. So yes, it’s terrifying. It’s grippingly terrifying, Burgin’s world, because he gives us our world back to us, in ways people spend time trying not to see it, and the prose simply carries one down the rabbit hole. Which makes Hide Island essential work, and work that doubles as its own monument to courage.