This week I read Tim Horvath‘s first book, Understories, and it made me realize there are some excellent writers you’ve never heard of (nor have I). If it wasn’t for the fact that Horvath knows Rebecca Makkai, who I met last summer, I might not have heard him read from “Circulation” when they visited Gibson’s Bookstore in July (Rebecca was promoting the paperback of The Borrower). It’s entirely possible that what with books for my column, books I hear about at work, and books already around my house waiting for me to read (not to mention heavy media coverage of only a few “it” titles a month, but that’s another rant), I might have missed Understories.Which is maddening, because this is not a book I would want to miss.
Understories is a very satisfying short fiction collection because the stories not only share an aesthetic — writing that is philosophical, sometimes whimsical, darkly funny, thought provoking, intense, evocative — but seem to come from a world that is similar to ours but riddled with portals into imagined places beyond anything you or I could dream up. I loved the way reading these stories left me feeling slightly off kilter.
Examples: the eight “Urban Planning” stories are each set in a strange city, such as one inhabited by the dead (new residents don’t always realize it at first). Another city has films constantly projected on its walls, and the main characters in that story are a projectioneer and his childhood friend who is in an anticinematic movement.
Some of the other stories that aren’t part of the “Urban Planning” series also dip into fantasy, like “The Conversations,” which I read as a satirical poke at the breakdown of civil discourse. Conversations (capital C) explode like terror attacks, leaving a strange mint scent in their wake. A philosopher determines that the opposite of Conversation is kismet, “meaning moments when people found common ground in an almost transcendent way.” He’s delusional and has spent a lot of time on his research: “the idea was to ingest as many and as various substances as he could track down, legal and illegal alike, and describe them.” He crashes a scientific summit convened to solve the problem of Conversations.
Even the stories set firmly in what we recognize as reality have a philosophical bent; Hovarth doesn’t just tell a story, he gives readers a window into the hearts, minds, and souls of his characters. I was drawn to many of them — the main characters in “Runaroundandscreamalot” and “Circulation” are people living with a great deal of empathy, even as they struggle, respectively, with divorce and joblessness and a dying parent. They each have a fairly quirky relative – an inventor brother in one case, and the dying father in the other, a man whose life work (never finished) was a book called the Atlas of the Voyages of Things. Both men are so kind to these misfit souls whose quests have impacted their families’ lives.
I also loved “The Understory” — what a beautiful story. Schoner, a botany professor at University of Freiburg where Heidegger is also teaching, gets to know the philosopher before fleeing Germany ahead of the war. In America he can’t teach because his English isn’t good enough, so he landscapes, and eventually buys a home with a small patch of forest in New Hampshire. The hurricane of 1938, closely followed by the hurricane of Hitler’s invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland, topples the trees Schoner loves, even as the war topples everything he’s known in Germany. His children want him to “clean up” the plot, cut paths through it, but he refuses because in it he sees all the people who he lost: “this plot preserves them.”
“The Discipline of Shadows,” about an “umbrologist” is both a playful jab at academic politics and a funny and strange story about a professor of shadows. In “Planetarium,” a man vacationing with his family in Glacier National Park runs into an old high school classmate and revisits the memory of a girl he knew, his giddy admiration of her, and her rejection of him. I’m summarizing poorly, but Hovarth captures that bittersweet sense of both the pleasure and pain of adolescence that can be easily triggered by a memory conjured after long dormancy.
This is not a quick read; it’s a book to read slowly and carefully, and to ponder between stories. But you’ll be glad you spent time in Tim Horvath’s rich, thoughtful, witty fiction. I was not surprised that Bellevue Literary Press published Understories. They bring readers this kind of thought provoking, beautiful book (like Tinkers and The Sojourn). Check out their titles, and maybe you will discover a book you might have missed.