Book Review: Understories by Tim Horvath

Book Review: Understories by Tim Horvath
by Tim Horvath

Fiction: Short stories
Bellevue Literary Press, May 2012
Paperback, 254 pages
Source: Provided by author for review

Understories is Tim Horvath’s first short story collection, and it is a mightily fun one to read. You may remember my review of his novella “Circulation” a few months ago; “Circulation” is included in this collection, as well as some other wonderful stories.

This collection contains eight “Urban Planning” case studies, most of which are roughly three pages long; six miscellaneous stories; and seven longer pieces in the 20-to-35-page range.

The “Urban Planning” stories were fascinating to read. In each of these stories, we pay a brief visit to a different completely fantastical city. There’s one city with elastic streets and sidewalks, where newcomers unused to the movement are sent flailing and sprawling. In another city, residents tune out the thousands of overwhelming sensations they are bombarded with each day to focus on a single sense and thus preserve their sanity. A third city is in denial that it is a city; inhabitants call the skyline “the tree line”, the sidewalks “the arroyos,” and the skyscrapers “mountains.” Yet another city has a culture revolving completely around food, where clothing boutiques serve to help people coordinate their dress to their meals and where chefs are at the top of the social ladder. Each of these glimmering urban environments are vividly imagined and pulsing with life.

“His boots, trudging about the city, are somewhere on the far side of mud-caked, a thick-crusted record of travels through floodplain and savanna, taiga and miasma. He would do well to stop and borrow a chisel and scrape them, lose some of that deadweight. But every time he’s about to do that, he thinks, Wait, maybe he could plant something in them — what, after all, is more precious than land? He could grow vegetables — nomadic tomatoes, wandering watercress. He cannot tell whether this is a good notion or simply hunger’s delusional logic, so he bends down and tucks a two-leafed twig into one of his mudbanked feet — for memory, so he can reconsider when his mind is clearer, once he’s rested.”

Very different from these surreal, delirious case studies are the longer stories, which include “Circulation” and the collection’s title story, “The Understory”. These pieces are more realistic, exploring themes such as human relationships, identity, and loss. Although less fantastical than the “Urban Studies” stories, they contain the same quirkiness and humor; we meet a professor who teaches umbrology, or the study of shadow; a divorcee who takes his young daughter to a Chuck-E-Cheese-like place that he calls Runaroundandscreamalot!; and a botanist who befriends Martin Heidegger before the Holocaust. The quieter, more contemplative tone of these stories provides a refreshing intermission from the relentless energy of some of the shorter pieces.

My one complaint with this collection is its lack of cohesion. I really enjoyed most of the stories, but they didn’t all fit together as a whole. The “Urban Planning” case studies work together nicely, each of them giving the reader a glimpse into a different fascinating, skewed city. These shimmering portraits of impossible urban environments mesh nicely with some of the other surreal, whimsical stories but are slightly at odds with the longer, more realistic pieces. I appreciated both the frenetic energy of the shorter stories and the clear, contemplative atmosphere of the lengthier pieces, but placing both styles side-by-side felt a bit discordant.

Overall, I really enjoyed this collection. The writing is in turns vibrant and imaginative, eloquent and thoughtful, and lush and whimsical. I’m looking forward to reading more of Horvath’s work in the future!

I received a complimentary copy from the author in exchange for my honest review.


2 thoughts on “Book Review: Understories by Tim Horvath

    • I don’t think Horvath himself mentions Calvino (I could be wrong) but one of the blurbs on the back does say “Tim Horvath seems to be channeling, all at once, Borges and Calvino and Kevin Brockmeier. And it all works.”

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