title: Understories [support an independent bookseller and purchase at Strand]
by: Tim Horvath
genre: short stories
published: May 2012
source: I received an advanced reader’s copy from Bellevue Literary Press via
LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review.
“It was the comfort of your tongue tripping on your own sweat, a friendly reminder that of the world’s salt, a share is yours.” (p. 14, Circulation)
The back jacket copy is what compelled me to request Tim Horvath’s Understories from the May Early Reviewers batch on LibraryThing: “What if there were a city that consisted only of restaurants? What if Paul Gauguin had gone to Greenland instead of Tahiti? What if there were a field called Umbrology, the study of shadows, where physicists and shadow puppeteers worked side by side. Full of speculative daring though firmly anchored in the tradition of realism, Tim Horvath’s stories explore all of this and more, blending the everyday and wondrous to contend with age-old themes of loss, identity, imagination, and the search for human connection. Whether making offhand references to Mystery Science Theater, providing a new perspective on Heidegger’s philosophy and forays into Nazism, or following the imaginary travels of a library book, Horvath’s writing is as entertaining as it is thought provoking.”
As a collection, Understories was a bit uneven. Not all of the stories seemed like they belonged in the same book. That said, there were more than a few that stood out to me as really quite good:
Runaroundandscreamalot By far, my favorite story in the book, but also the story that felt the most misplaced. The action follows a divorced father as he takes his daughter, Sasha, to a local indoor playground and the relationship that develops between himself and the mother of a child named Hahn. Really tight with strong, compelling characters…I just really bought into this slice of the characters’ lives he allows us to peek in on.
Altered Native This piece ponders what would have happened if Gauguin found his inspiration in icy Greenland, as opposed to tropical Tahiti. Particularly deliciously crafted for the reader who knows a bit about Gauguin’s Tahiti experiences…
The Conversations Spontaneous combustion sporadically occurs across the globe during specific types of discussion, and Horvath explores what happens when we worry as much about what we shouldn’t talk about as what we’re trying to communicate.
Urban Planning: Case Study Number Seven A City in the Light of Moths Horvath imagines a world where film is shown 24 hours a day on every available square inch of surface, and his world building and description in this piece is exceptionally strong.
The Understory Heidegger. A Jewish arborist. An unlikely friendship. Nazis and philosophy and trees. Horvath’s result is nuanced and balanced.
In between many of the stories were short pieces entitled Urban Planning, created I imagine to weave the stories together into a cohesive collection. A couple of these, particularly Case Study Number Six and Case Study Number Eight, were delightfully strange taut little mini-stories and would have worked out of the context of the greater collection as well.
Horvath’s strength is absolutely concept: he imagines places and scenarios, and “what ifs” himself into the most interesting premises. To be a fly on the wall in that man’s imagination…which also sounds like a plausible premise for one of Horvath’s stories…
One thing I did notice is that Horvath does have a tendency to use several words where one would suffice, so if economy of word is your thing, he might not be the right writer for you to explore.
Rubric ruling: 7
I have no idea why, but my reading has tended toward the dystopian/surreal/ speculative/downright bizarre lately. Just wait until I share with you my thoughts on Blake Butler’s There Is No Year… I’m beginning to have some really strange dreams, and I absolutely blame Butler…I think it might be time to crack into Anna Karenina and The Dud Avocado!