Understories by Tim Horvath
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Two traits of Tim Horvath are rapidly revealed in reading the collection of stories entitled, Understories. First, he’s an academic to the core. Second, he loves words and the way they can be jigged around to create not only meaning but feeling. Combined, these characteristics yield both positive and negative outcomes.
On the positive side, Horvath writes what he knows, and this can be seen in tales like: The Understory, The Discipline of Shadows, Tilkez, and even Circulation. Horvath paints a vivid picture of life in academia with The Understory and The Discipline of Shadows in particular, replete with scholarly rivalry and interdepartmental politics. While that may make the book sound stunningly boring, those two stories are among the strongest–in part because the author knows how to build tension and character in this domain. His bookish characters are constructed with wit and depth.
On the other hand, this book is for the ones who love language more than they love story. The readability isn’t high. Horvath peppers the text with words that many of us memorized to take our GRE test but never used after receipt of our acceptance letter. Many avid readers never learned such words in the first place. This is where the Kindle edition, and its capability for instantaneous word lookup, comes in handy. (Though, the author does manage to stymie Kindle’s internal dictionary on a number of cases.) The shorter pieces tended to leave me wondering if Horvath had a point other than to dazzle with verbiage. To be fair, it’s not just monosyllabic and pretentious words that Horvath loves. He has a taste for all sorts of words that are evocative and powerful, be they whimsical, sexual, or emotional.
Understories consists of 21 short stories, but I use the term “story” loosely. Some of the chapters are stories in a conventional sense. That is, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and a character who takes some sort of personal journey. Other pieces are the literary equivalent of the masturbatory orgasm; they’re pleasant to experience but beg the question of what the objective is. The contents of the book are below. I’ll restrict my commentary to the more substantial pieces, and leave the reader to figure out what Horvath was trying to get at with the others.
1. The Lobby: This is really an artistic introduction and rules for reading the book.
2. Urban Planning: Case Study #1: This is the first of 8 such “case studies.” With the exception of one, they’re all flash pieces.
3. Circulation: If I had to pick a best story of the anthology, it would be this one. It’s about a man whose eccentric father is in the hospital with mind and body that aren’t what they used to be. The man is Director of Circulation for his hometown library, and the father has one published book and spent much of his life working on an unfinished Atlas of the Voyages of Things. The sub-story about the books as a reflection of the man is what gives this something extra beyond the usual “Cats in the Cradle” (Harry Chapin reference) narrative.
4. Urban Planning: Case Study #2: Another brief piece.
5. The Understory: This is one of the full length stories, and is one of the best pieces. It’s about the bringing together and falling apart of a platonic relationship between two scholars. Set in pre-war Germany, the story opens with a scholarly rivalry between two professors who become good friends. However, one of the men is a Jew and the other is promoted to a Deanship because he has appeal with the Nazis.
6. Urban Planning: Case Study #3
7. The Discipline of Shadows: This is the story of a professor in the Department of Umbrology. What’s Umbrology? It’s the study of shadows. An interdisciplinary department with a unifying theme of shadows provides and intriguing background for a story that’s not so out of the ordinary. The story delves into scholastic politics and a sordid intradepartmental love triangle.
8. Urban Planning: Case Study #4
9. Planetarium: This is story proper. It’s about the reunion of two high school buddies, and their differing recollections of a seminal event of their youth involving shenanigans at a planetarium. The story is an odd sort of confession.
10. The Gendarmes: This story will appeal to lovers of the surreal. It’s about a man who discovers that a team of scientists are playing baseball on his roof.
11. A Box of One’s Own: An eloquent tale of the curiosity inspired by boxes.
12. Internodium: This is another short piece.
13. Urban Planning: Case Study #5: This one probably ties for my favorite flash piece. It’s about a city that evolves into all restaurants.
14. Runaroundandscreamalot!: There’s a lot of humor sprinkled throughout this book, but this is the one story one might put in the humor genre. It’s funny from the title onward, which is the protagonist’s pet name for a generic Chuck-E-Cheese-esque place called “Playalot”—which is a medieval-themed kid’s play palace. The protagonist, a divorced man, takes his daughter there and meets a woman that he proceeds to try to get to know better despite only knowing her as “Hanh’s Mom” for most of the story.
15. Urban Planning: Case Study #6: This is the other tie-holder for best flash piece. It’s about a city in denial.
16. Pocket: A flash piece on, well… pockets.
17. Altered Narrative: A short and experimental piece.
18. Urban Planning: Case Study #7: This is the only one of these “Urban Planning Case Studies” that is a short story in the usual sense. It’s about a [grown man] film projectionist who abandons his post after seeing his wife with another man.
19. The Conversations: There’s a fair amount of surrealism sown throughout this book, but this is one of the more speculative pieces. That said, it’s really just about the death and resurrection of the conversation—along with “mint.” The sci-fi component revolves around speculation about precisely caused it and what the difference is between a “Conversation” and a “conversation.” The latter being what we normally think of (i.e. and informal discussion), and the former being the subject of the story.
20. Tilkez: The protagonist is a creepy little man who writes down everything and the story is about his relationship with both a female and language (I think. The female might be symbolic.)
21. Urban Planning: Case Study #8: One last flash piece.
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