Strange Ephemera And Uncanny Cities: Tim Horvath’s Debut Collection “Understories” Reviewed

by Tim Horvath
Bellevue Literary Press; 256 p.

Peppered throughout Understories, Tim Horvath’s debut collection, are works labeled “Urban Planning: Case Study Number x.” Some of these are short vignettes describing indisputably foreign urban landscapes: a city in which the sidewalks undulate rather than hold rigid, for instance, or one in which restaurants are not only the primary tourist attraction but are also the basis of the form of government. Others are longer, including “The City In The Light of Moths,” a story of poltiical subversion and emotional betrayal in a municipality in which the public display of cinema represents something far deeper than simply entertaining the masses. But for all that Horvath delights in uncanny settings and strange transpositions, the strengths of this collection are in the interactions and inner lives of its characters. Alternately, like Schöner, the tree-climbing professor of botany at the center of “The Understory,” Horvath isn’t content to simply describe these sometimes fantastical settings. Instead, there’s a push towards psychological veracity here, and it’s what helps make this collection stand out. There’s plenty of imagination present here, yes — but it’s rooted in recognizable and occasionally irrational emotions, a human quality that’s makes these stories endure.

In “The Understory” and “Circulation,” both of which fall in the book’s first third, Horvath’s focus is on recognizable emotional situations. In “Circulation,” the narrator’s tense relationship with his father — author of a self-published book on caves and potential author of an encyclopedia of ephemera — manifests itself in a progressively more convoluted act of storytelling. In some ways, the later “Runaroundandscreamalot!” serves as a companion piece to this one, each focusing on the loneliness of the not-entirely-successful innovator.

“The Understory”’s Professor Schöner befriends Martin Heidegger, finding him an intellectual compatriot before being repulsed by Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism. It’s the ways in which Schöner deals with that betrayal after leaving Germany that resonate: his embrace of a forest in New Hampshire, inexplicable to the rest of his family; his subtle monitoring of Heidegger’s post-war career. Horvath here summons a generation’s reluctance to speak of certain aspects of pre-war life, and of the ways in which those unspoken words can be sublimated into something else.

In other cases, conversational reticence becomes preternaturally ominous. “The Conversations” begins with a series of seemingly random vignettes before revealing its central hook: that its characters are somehow compelled to utter rote words in response to one another, followed by sudden and lethal denouements. Here, Horvath uses both ambiguity and the overly familiar to horrific ends. Some of the other scenarios in Understories lace the familiar with a release achieved through a discipline: “The Discipline of Shadows” takes the academic comedy and filters it through a surreal lens; between this story and Norman Lock’s novel Shadowplay, you have a strong start for a theoretical syllabus focusing on shadow puppetry in literature. “Planetarium” focuses on repressed memories and personal reinvention; and “Altered Native” is a series of short vignettes focusing on a historical figure — the twist here being that this Paul Gaugin set out for Nuuk instead of the South Pacific.

Through most of Understories, Horvath balances quirk and realism. Sometimes, the ratio feels off; in the case of “The Gendarmes” fits abundant quantities of weird into a small space, with a shaggy-dog ending that doesn’t entirely mesh with the stories around it, tending towards a punchline rather than a greater understanding of its characters. The later “Tilkez” takes a similar approach on paper : it’s an extended riff on academic intellectuals that reaches a punchy conclusion. Here, however, the academic satire supports the characters; the experience of reading this story can be dizzying, but its final sentence provides a gut-punch of a conclusion. There’s plenty to recommend in Understories; below the striking imagery, there’s abundant emotional depth to be found.

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