Tim Horvath: Understories (Bellevue Literary Press, 2012) [IBR]

The title of the collection, “Understories” has several layers of meaning. The most literal is a reference from “The Understory” to the plants that grow at the base of the forest canopy, farthest from the crowns’ light and glory but just as critical to the overall habitat, and surely as intriguing when you hunker down close and know what to look for. I took a class called Forest Communities of New Hampshire where we went out hiking and examined the various layers in different forest stands, and I was amazed at how much you could learn by looking down as well as up and discerning connections between the levels. Even in “The Understory,” though, the word has a double meaning, referring also to the hidden stories, the stories that lie underneath the received version of events or the surface narrative that a person presents.

~~Tim Horvath, BLP Book Extra

Ok, now I’m mad. How come no one ever told me about Tim Horvath? Why did no one ever say, “Hey, Karen, you’ve got to read this book, you really do”?

So that this mistake is not repeated, let me say it to you: You’ve got to read this book. You really do.

In his htmlgiant review, Jarret Middleton refers to the collection as a city with the longer stories as skyscrapers surrounded by the shorter works. Sure, the big stories are magnificent – truly they are – but the little ones are gems as well; do not overlook the charming little bodegas and mom & pop shops while you are agape in wonder at the loftier architecture. As the man said, look down as well as up. And, by the way, look up as well as down. Look.

It’s not what I’d call an “easy” read. More than a few of the stories, especially the early ones, had me a little dubious at first: is this “the story”? Are we there yet? If you’re wondering that as you read – nope, you’re not there yet. Keep going. Suddenly, you’ll hit it, and you’ll realize, oh, that’s what it’s about, and a universe opens in your mind and heart. It’s worth the wait.

I loved this book. And it had to climb over a few barriers to get me to say that.

Tim contacted me through Goodreads after seeing some of my comments on BASS stories and One Story issues – he uses both as sources of fiction in his teaching – and asked if he could send me his book. I’m always thrilled to talk stories with anyone (and always surprised anyone wants to bother talking stories, or anything else, with me), and I very much want to hear about books I might like, but I always (on the few occasions it’s happened) feel a bit awkward when I’m (rarely) handed a free book; no matter how many times they say “no obligation,” I feel there surely is, somewhere; I can’t escape it, so why not admit it and go from there. I’m also hesitant to commit myself to an unexpected reading/posting project (I’m slow), particularly when I’m conscious of the author metaphorically looking over my shoulder on every page (“is she smiling? She isn’t crying, is that a bad sign?“). But no author ever worked harder to get an obscure blogger with virtually no following to read his book (Tim is almost as addicted to loquacious email discussions of Books/Stories I Have Loved as I, with my middle name of “TL;DR” am). I made some ambiguous comments about having a full plate from January through March (which is true), to leave my options open should I discover this was not my cup of tea, figuring by Spring he’d have forgotten all about me and I could avoid any potential discomfort entirely.

The book arrived at my door in mid-December, and I glanced at the table of contents. Just this first one, maybe – “The Lobby” – it’s very, very short flash – to get a sense of things before I put it aside, but that flash worked so well (and it was so short) I had to read “Urban Planning Case Study Number One,” also very short – I read them both standing in my hallway – and I was hooked before I’d even put down the shreds of the postal envelope it came in. Note to myself: if you’re trying not to read a book, do not start reading the book. But hey, I had this three-week hiatus, and sure, I have Hamlet to re-read before the class starts on Jan. 13 (oh, come on, I can do that during the class, right?) and a group read of Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day to celebrate the Solstice with ModPo (the MOOC that never ends) and calculus to brush up on and Platonic solids to assemble as prep for three – THREE?? – upcoming math courses, and there are the those Uncreative Writing projects I have started (and have stalled on… someone give me a push, please?) and pfeffernusse to make and all the usual holiday and end-of-year things to do… but I can fit in one final collection. Especially this one.

A slowness, a quasi-geological time governs the circulation of books: the punctuation of frantic movements as a book takes on a buzz, gets reviewed, followed by years of stillness, silence, neglect. Perhaps a motion picture is commissioned, produced, released; the book stirs, reenters the commerce of the world, mingles and becomes inebriated in the gala of its success, and eventually tapers off, only somewhat reluctantly, into a second retirement. Envision a remake 30 years later – it happens. There is always hope, you see.

~~from “Circulation”

Most of the Understories reviews you’ll find around the blogosphere (let me say once again for the record: I don’t do book reviews because I don’t know how; I’m not sure what these posts are, but they’re just my reactions to what I read) will talk about similarities to Calvino and Borges; even I can see those very clearly. You can’t have a book with eight Urban Planning: Case Study stories sprinkled throughout and not think Invisible Cities, but if you can, then there’s the cover itself, and Borges is explicitly referenced in one of the stories and intimated in the interplay of philosophy, science, and literature in others. In a conversation with Philadelphia Review of Books, Tim himself cites DFW and Tobias Wolff as influences; I’m not familiar enough with Wolff to speak to that, and DFW, well, who isn’t influenced (or doesn’t wish she were) by him. I’m not very good at this kind of literogenetic tracing, since I tend to come up with oddball connections, but this isn’t high-stakes so I’ll play: If Calvino and Borges had a baby, it was adopted by Aimee Bender (who is always wacky) and Bennett Sims (who combines lyric prose with academia), lived next door to Jim Shepard (who personalizes history with exquisite detail and heart) and down the block from Manuel Gonzales (whose The Miniature Wife and Other Stories interspersed its fantasy stories with brief stories-in-the-form-of-obituaries), you might come close.

But why not just look on it as what it is: Tim Horvath (website here), who, like all those other souls, takes what he likes and combines it with a little something of his own, be it shadows, or caves, or a historic New England storm.

The stories (in somewhat disheveled order):

“The Lobby”

Note that a voyeur is not even capable of fully appreciating the lobby, since architect’s express mission was “to create a transitional venue to be absorbed molecularly in daily passage, subordinating ocular experience to a dopaminergic rush simulating the intake of certain illicit substances and overcoming the perils of habit(u)ation.” Note that even we have only a partial clue of what the fuck the architect was talking about, hence to pretend that you, a mere pedestrian onlooker (henceforth “voyeur”), will “get it” in some fell swoop like some mathematician-savant bypassing all the dirty little scratchpad pencil-and-eraserwork is just plain ludicrous.

Having finished the collection, I can say that seldom has an initial story so perfectly introduced the feel and content of a collection as “The Lobby” did this one. Taken by itself, well, I love a writer who can turn a legal contract into a heartbreaking little sigh. Note, however, that like the Residents contemplating their Architect, I also have only a partial clue of what the fuck the author is talking about – even Tim admits in his ShortForm interview that the guy is “somewhat cryptic” – but it’s one of those enticing mysteries I encounter from time to time that upholsters my lostness in an ineffable beauty. After all, no one knows what God is, or why we fall in love, or how music makes us cry, or what “Hotel California” is about (which is perhaps the most concrete comparison that occurred to me, and that should tell you something), but that doesn’t stop us from building entire cultures around such things. Surely a flash can have some mystery, and still be beautiful.


When we were awash with youth, we were all led to believe that our father was assembling a book called The Atlas of Voyages of Things, or, as we shortened it, The Atlas. That it was eventually destined to enter the world was incontestable – one day, assuredly, we would march into the bookshop behind his gallant stride, and there, on the shelf, which set the book, sprawling, coffee-table-ready, his name beaming from the front as on a theater marquee. “You see, boys?” he’d say, and we would solemnly nod.

The premise, for all of the book’s unwieldy history, was disarmingly straightforward. My father was eternally fascinated by how things came to be where they currently were.

I’m tempted to just list a bunch of excerpts and let that whet your appetite – and you would get mighty hungry – but I suppose that wouldn’t be helpful in conveying what the story is about. But, like many of the stories in this book, it’s nearly impossible for me to say what this one is about. An unfinished book? A son saying goodbye to his dying father? Sure. But so much more than that.

Trying to explain the plot requires retelling the story, and Horvath does that just fine on his own. So why not just read the original? You’ll be glad you did. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out and you see where it’s going (“oh, it’s storyline G42, the estranged brother subdivision”), something completely unexpected happens.

So what’s it about? The overpowering, narcissistic father Gus, son Jay, and how books hold them together: the unfinished Atlas, through their congruent lives, then Spelos: An Ode to Caves as those lives diverge. And in one of the most charming surprises I’ve read, Scheherezade: the librarian son who spins tales of the voyages of a book that’s never left its shelf, and wonders: “My father was on his deathbed, and I was hardly saving my own life. Or was I?”

It’s about who runs for daylight, and who finds the only daylight he needs right where he is. It’s about Ding an Sich, Kant’s essence of things, and Borges’ Library of Babel. Connections between things, one of my personal favorite themes. How we survive. Family. How, when we think we’re least able to learn, it turns out we can learn everything we ever wanted to know.

The Atlas, in its non-existence the central image of the story, is itself about circulation. I don’t think it was even intended to be written – yet it was the heartbeat of the family, that pumped the hot blood through the arteries and brought them each nourishment and oxygen:

Do all families have such unifying themes? And if not, what replaces them? How, otherwise, do they make sense of it all, bring together the noblest and the basest in their histories within a single binding?

How, indeed?

Family is about circulation. Library books are about circulation – most literally, perhaps, but let’s face it, every atom on this planet is in circulation (I was going James Burke with the Atlas, but in a great interview with Greg Gerke on The Nervous Breakdown, Tim cites Primo Levy’s “Carbon” chapter of The Periodic Table which is just something I’m going to have to read now. As you’re going to have to read “Circulation.”

Within the library that Borges conjures, not only is every book ever written shelved somewhere but every possible book, every conceivable configuration of the alphabet. The conceit is too dizzying to think about for very long, but it serves as a good antidote to certain fundamental realities: funds are limited, books go unread, tumble out of print, serve as door stops – all too effectively, I might add; the greatest libraries of civilizations burn down, suns collapse, abandon planets without child support. And each life is limited – there is only so much reading that one can consume in the course of a lifetime, and the guests are waiting for the ham.

See? Circulation. Let the guests wait for their ham. They’ll enjoy it more afterwards, I promise.

“The Understory”

“A rainforest,” his daughter, Sabine, calls it, “in the middle of Peterborough, New Hampshire.”
He jokes that if they can find an anaconda there, they can have the woods, do with them what they will.… But he will wait it out until they drag out that anaconda. Will not submit to the desire to clean up the woods, to haul away the degenerating matter that trips one up at every turn. It is not purity he is after; on the contrary, it is precisely the lack of purity on which he insists.

Where I found “Circulation” so difficult to summarize, this one’s a lot easier: Schöner, aging philosopher-turned landscaper, a German Jew who escaped to the US just in the nick of time back in the 30s, reflects on his deep personal and intellectual friendship with Martin Heidegger during his post at University, and the feelings of betrayal as Heidegger failed to stand against the Nazis back when people still thought that was possible. And of course, it isn’t anywhere near that simple; the present-time story brings several strong symbolic elements – gardening, storms, and lots of philosophy – to give depth and resonance to what could have been merely an extended flashback.

I wish I knew more about Heidegger, yet another point of brilliance ruined by the Nazis; so much of what they couldn’t kill, they tainted, more of the incalculable waste (we all like to think we would’ve been among those who spoke up, or at least among those who left – but would we have? Are we, now? For make no mistake, it could happen again, and it could happen, could be happening right now, here, wherever “here” is for you, wherever the will to power gains enough momentum through fear to override reason). But after the storm, something new grew up, and that – the understory – is part of the legacy, too.

In addition to the figurative storm of fascism and WWII, there’s a literal (and historical) storm: the Great Hurricane of 1938, a storm before storms were named, a storm that destroyed great swaths of the Northeast – including Schöner’s newly acquired New Hampshire woods, the woods he so staunchly defends in the present against even benign encroaching civilization.

So it is with an eagerness verging on rapture that he looks forward to Heidegger’s Rectoral address. The program has been printed, and its title, “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” is already creating a buzz. Heidegger will, it is thought, speak out against tyranny. He will speak up for the intellectual life, Hitler’s impatience for such things be damned.… But he’s jarred awake. Phrases like “German destiny” and “the historical spiritual mission of the German people.” He hears “‘Knowing, however, is far weaker than necessity.'” Again and again – it is unmistakable. “German.” “Destiny.” “Historical mission.” “Spiritual.” “German.” “German.” The new rector repeats them like mantras. Wide awake now, Schöner shivers at the thunderous applause that greets each one. He looks around, expecting monsters, and sees worse: aught but the ruddy enthusiasm of a pep rally.… Where is the assertion of the University that was promised? Where is Heidegger? Finally, with a flourish Schöner imagines he must bring to his great lectures, Heidegger quotes Plato: “‘All that is great stands in the storm.'” And he is done.

This is indeed Heidegger’s actual Rectoral address, including that controversial modification of Plato. I’m afraid I lack the knowledge of either The Republic or, especially, Heidegger, to thoughtfully discuss the nuances, but many such discussions are just a google away (and the insertion of Google, and googlebooks, is not an accident at this juncture; “Where is Heidegger?” is a question I’ve been asking a lot this year, though not in that form).

“You know, Martin, it’s strange. Trees have always defined the forest for me. I climbed in the canopy, because I thought that’s where the best, truest view was. But in the wake of the Storm of 1938, I find that the little plants of the understory have become very dear to me, dearer than I could have ever imagined. I will not burden you with their Latin names, but I do urge you to take notice of them the next time you’re out walking in the woods.”

When Heidegger dies in 1976, Schöner rushes to read a post-war interview he gave, on the condition it only be released after his death. He is disappointed; and I’ll say no more other than I get a whiff of my buddy Wittgenstein from the Fall (no, I haven’t forgotten you, my friend) who famously said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

The forest with its crowns and understory: the University and the woods? The Ivory Tower and the gardener? Hurricane and the holocaust, both destroy, and the understory builds up anew; in some cases, surprising, and different; a tree from Finland – or a German philosophy professor – landing in New Hampshire.

“The Discipline of Shadows”

“Umbrology? The study of umbrellas?” Impossible to know, then, how typical this reaction will be. Countless times I’ll hear it over the years, even hear about ingenious designs from closet inventors, giddy for an audience. “No,” I’ll learn to cut in gently, “the study of shadows.” (Always shadows, the vernacular, never shadow, though semantics is hardly uncontroversial in the field; one either deems it substance or quantifiable entity and thus divisible. Each has consequences.)

This one was written for me, with my fondness for finding meaning in that which is regarded as meaningless, and connections between the broadest dissimilarities possible. Yet at first I thought I was “missing” the story.The central conflict – one professor trying to make a fortune from an algorithm discovered as part of his University study, everyone else trying to stop him – didn’t interest me much, maybe because, though it’s dramatically staged in a final legal meeting, it isn’t all that well-defined, at least to those of us outside the battles of intellectual property against an academic backdrop. I found the underlying faculty shenanigans are confusing and not that interesting. I was far more taken with the shadows than with the reality – then I realized, that may be the very point: as our narrator says, “It is not what shadows show about the figure but the ground.”

I was very affected by a somewhat ancillary character development: our narrator has things he wants to share with people, like the miracle of an eclipse, or his idea about words being shadows, but there’s no one to share with. He is the Introduction to Umbrology guy, the one who does the orientation and then watches his newbies, his students, leave to find their specialties; he is thus alone, acquaintance to all, but friends with none. A shadow: mysterious, unique, omnipresent, impactful, but not really there.

Who am I kidding; I loved this character, this umbrologist forever explaining what that is, lost in the shadows, with his intolerance of flatness and his understandable antipathy towards Plato. And in this era of shrinking budgets for anything that doesn’t show up immediately on standardized tests or a higher profit margin, I loved the ethos of this story.

In his interview with Larry Dark for the Story Prize blog, Tim described the origin of this story in a prompt for his writing group:

We decided to open up books at random and choose a sentence that would be our prompt for the next meeting, and the first thing I opened to was from an Antonya Nelson story: “How is it the squirrel did not slide?” What a line, I thought. My fellow writers had some imaginative takes, and as for me, I envisioned someone observing a squirrel whose shadow moved even while the squirrel itself didn’t budge, and this was a total crisis for him (the man, not the squirrel). Why was it a crisis? Well, clearly he was obsessed with shadows himself, and the reason the squirrel didn’t slide was because he was losing his mind because he was studying something outlandish. But what if it wasn’t crazy? And then I began to watch some Wayang Kulit Indonesian shadow theater and the work of a San Francisco company called Shadowlight Productions that brilliantly combines traditional work with a modern vibe, and I felt, “It’s crazy not to study this.” Hence, I invented a field I called umbrology, the study of shadows, and that got the story off and running, with shadow theater and optics and film noir all rubbing shoulders. The squirrel didn’t slide, but plenty of other things did.

~~Tim Horvath, interview from The Story Prize blog

I’ve been discovering shadows everywhere in the couple of weeks since I read this story: in two – two! – mathematical lectures, plus coverage of an art exhibit. And by the way, Shadowlight Productions is doing some amazing things combining traditional Balinese shadow theater with stories from a variety of cultures; I spent some time watching their YouTube videos referenced above and by the image at the left; “Ghosts of the River” was heartbreaking, but the technique is fascinating.This is why I love reading: the universe, reality, so wants to be a whole, and we so insist on dividing it up into departments and categories: serious things here – math in this room, literature next door, art down the hall – and frivolous shadows way, way over there. The shadows have beauty and meaning, and are part of reality, too. Don’t just walk through them to something else; see them.

The “Urban Planning”stories:

Each of these eight Studies – seven flashes and one story – examines a unique city, and when I say unique, I mean just that: the cities, and the residents, are unlike anything in our experience. Yet we’re still able to find our truths in them. Some things are universal, no matter how strange the setting. One of the particular charms of these selections is that the stories refer to other cities in passing, giving them a sense of unity.

Those still paying attention will notice only six Case Studies listed in this section; since Number Seven is a full-length story, with a title and everything, I’ve treated it as such in a separate heading, and because Number Eight is the final story of the collection, I’m likewise placing it on its own at the end, to give the close the same due I have the opening flash “The Lobby.” To further confuse matters, a few of them were published with numbers that differ from those used in this volume. It is what it is. Any complaints, go see Emerson for a lesson on foolish consistency. It’s not likely you’ll confuse one Case Study with another, trust me.

“Case Study Number One”: available online at Sein und Werden #12; audio at Soundzine

The mayor of Morrisania decreed that no longer would its citizens be plagued by rain.… Immediately, building began citywide with fanfare and all-hands-on-deck resolve. Grandmothers simmered marvelous soups, salvaging bones from the near oblivion of trash mounds. Construction teams went out their brawniest, resplendent in colorful T-shirts sporting memorable slogans. Street performers busked with renewed vigor, sending sweat and falcons skyward and forging their own signatures in luminous contrails. Philosophers set up tables at which they contemplated in lively and vigorous fashion the premises and consequences of the whole endeavor, debating, for instance, whether the open or closed form of the umbrella was more authentic and fundamental. Closed was originary, yet its very existence had meaning only in the context of the open; never had these pallid intellectuals come so close to blows.…
Then, it began to rain.

Call it what you will: a random fantasy, a study of political megalomania and its aftermath, a climate change fable. For me, the umbrella question alone was worth it.

“Case Study Number Two”:

I was mystified, as I would be in those early weeks. How was it that no one in Delagotha complained about these suffocating crowds, this steady bombardment, this all-at-onceness? How could a place persist under such conditions? Why didn’t its citizens unite their voices and demand respites – parks, plazas, sound-swallowing walls? And yet I was stunned at how easily and smoothly I was able to get along without the glasses, girded by the flesh of those around me.

Like a Vegas showgirl, I’m torn between showing my favorite parts, and avoiding spoilers; one of the features of these stories is that the final paragraphs twist the focusing ring and make everything sharp and clear, but it’s that process that is the delight of each piece. So forgive me for not saying more, other than: multitasking.

“Case Study Number Three”:

For a city so utterly shut down, it is strangely alive, bustling with pedestrians. After some of the places he’s been prior, he is most grateful for this heavy foot traffic, this to-and-fro. Whenever he thinks about starting, he reminds himself that when he has pictured his own death in the past, it has always been him alone. Because nonexistence runs so counter to the spirit of such company, he feels protected by the crowds. So long as he can distract the part of himself that will decide to die, he reasons, it cannot happen.

He is, of course, wrong, and trapped in a place where he can’t sit down and rest, not even for a moment. But he doesn’t yet understand why. In fact, he still doesn’t at the close of the story – but we do.

“Case Study Number Four” – available online at Conjunctions, 5/13/08

Planning to relocate here? Great! However, please keep some advice from those who have preceded you here (and there are many). Your first days and nights (but especially days) in Ganzoneer can be disconcerting… Remember that YOU are mostly water yourself, and thus that the polymer-based proprietary hydropolylipidinous compounds that comprise most of the city’s architecture are hardly alien to your own anatomical makeup. In fact, you are more like Ganzoneer then you are like Paris, Delagotha, New York, or Raedmeon (unless you are a cement-, metal-, and glass-based sentient creature. In which case, Welcome, Cement-, Metal-, and Glass-based Sentient Creature!). Become, then, more like what you are…

One of the many smaller delights of these Case Studies is that several of them refer to other Case Study cities, creating a network of stories that fulfill the structural and transitional role in the collection, as well as making the fantastic more real. Ganzoneer is soft, rather than hard; pliant, rather than rigid. I find the sociological theory advanced within to be most interesting; who’s to say it isn’t true, somewhere?
Oh, wait, yes, there is someone to say that, isn’t there… people are still people, even in fantastic stories.

“Case Study Number Five”:

An unfathomable gulf divides us from that time, makes it so hard to believe that people were people then, moving about in three robust dimensions with the vivacity,… flinging spices blindly into the waiting maws of pots, sometimes checking the label afterward, the stovetop a welter of activity, a percussive clatter, the cook whistling or gossiping all the while – unthinking, careless, saucy. They needed no justification for their indulgence; food was the cornerstone of Vassilonian existence. Our existence – I remind myself, “this people” was me.
…The collapse was, looking back, as inevitable as it was sudden.

This was published in Alimentum – “The Literature of Food” – but it goes so far beyond that, it’s almost (almost) unfortunate the food is so well-written; it’s a story that’ll make you hungry, maybe make you want to cook. But it could be anything, really: Austria and music (until the Nazis showed up), Indiana and basketball, American insouciance before. Yeah. Like I said, it goes way beyond food.

“Case Study Number Six” – available online from wigleaf (as #7), 11/7/10

The city that was in denial that it was a city called the skyscrapers “mountains,” its giant central train station “The Butte,” its industrial waterfront “the marshlands,” its spindly bridges “land bridges,” its vacant lots “the ocotillo patches,” its sewers “the arroyos,” its sidewalks “eskers,” its elevated trains “cutbanks,” its skyline “the treeline”…. They glanced occasionally at their watches, which they stopped short of calling “the sun.”
… Under a weird sky in which silvery pollution had congealed into a solid concavity, the city that was in denial that it was a city caught a glimpse of itself one day.

For the record: as a lifelong city girl, I had to look up exactly what some of these words mean, and I still couldn’t tell an esker from a hill if my life depended on it. But that’s beside the point. I’m not sure exactly what the point is – the self-congratulatory feeling that one is not like all those others, until one happens to stare uncomprehendingly at one’s reflection when it refuses to fall in line with one’s self-image, perhaps.

Additional Flash Fiction:

In addition to the opening and closing stories and the Urban Planning group, there’s other flash fiction interspersed. I find I like that; it isn’t a rigid pattern, but it’s nice to have the variety. I think it also encourages me as a reader to treat the flashes more seriously. I read a lot of flash, but typically online, one at a time. In a book of flash, there’s a tendency to end up turning pages faster and faster, without allowing each story to have its moment; I found that by encountering them here, never knowing whether the next story would go on for two pages or twenty, I was more likely to pause and let things sink in a bit, ponder what I’d just read and what it connected to, either in this collection, or in daily reading and living. That said: overall, these flashes didn’t work for me as well as the rest of the collection.

“The Gendarmes”:

“We’re trying to teach animals to grasp the concept of extinction,” said Pitcher/Spokesperson. “We’re tired of having to bail out endangered species. It’s high time they learned individual responsibility.”

It may seem improbable that a story titled “The Gendarmes” might feature the above lines and a baseball game played on a roof, but there’s also a leech-cauliflower salad and by the way the baseballs are highly combustible. This story left me behind in the dust, but I do love that above quote.

“A Box of One’s Own“:

“I will not relent,” said the box. “Narrative structure would dictate a gradual withering away of my defenses and a climactic divulgence of the contents of my secret interiority. But I know all about narrative structure. So don’t even try it, buddy.”

I adored this flash; I’m fond of self-referential fiction anyway, so add talking boxes and I’m all yours. The whimsy is not without its point; don’t we all need a box of our own? And who can’t identify with:

When you are not in need of a box, the prospect of snaring one appears piddlingly easy and straightforward. Boxes abound, this world a surfeit of boxes.… And yet, when bereft of a box, in a non-box-possessing state, the simple procurement of one becomes staggeringly difficult obstacle, as I was soon to discover.

So the next time you’re walking down the street toting your box, and you hear a chorus chanting, “This End Up! This End Up! This End Up!” brace yourself – you might just be ready to invert, and then, who knows what will happen. You could find yourself writing a city of stories.


Whatever else we are, we are surely a beard that has convinced its owner to stop shaving.

Another one I can’t make heads nor tails out of, so I’m a bit at a loss and would have to classify it as a not-favorite – but I do love the sentences. How they hang together, I don’t know. At least not yet.

“Pocket” – available online at Diagram 9.2

My father is semiporous. Even now that he’s been fully disassembled and the schematics rendered in a dizzying cross-section, he remains largely unknowable to us.… Oh, his pocket. Plural: Pocket. Not pockets. Pocket – like deer, like moose. His coinage. I can still hear him rage at those times when, still young, we threw an s onto the end.…

((())) If the string theorists are right, the universe teems with hidden dimensions; pockets abound. To make even a
single new one, then, is to play at being God.

I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for footnotes in fiction. Especially footnotes that aren’t really footnotes; the compounded weirdness appeals to me. If this went on for any longer than it does – a bare paragraph, plus footnotes – it’d get annoying, but it knows when to stop, and I appreciate that. Understanding is a different matter. But I wouldn’t be so inflexible as to insist that everything must be understandable.

“Altered Native” – available online as an MP3 audio reading by Tim Horvath, from Conjunctions Audio Vault.

1. Crossing Tahiti of his itinerary, Gauguin heads instead for points north in his gambit to ditch civilization. The more his mind has lolled in the tropics, the more convinced he’s become that the languorous heat, syrupy voyeurism, and ornate adzes will merely reiterate Parisian clamor and clutter sans the solace of steaming coffee and pain. Greenland – now that promises true primitivism. Shifting ice tetrahedrons, shuddering rumbles, and terns’ glancing landings will translate nature morte more exactly than gaudy mangoes.

I don’t know nearly enough about Gaugin to fully appreciate this (other than Tahiti, does anyone other than an artist know much about Gaugin? Jaclyn Michelle at wineandbook.com makes me want to read a biography when she says the story is “Particularly deliciously crafted for the reader who knows a bit about Gauguin’s Tahiti experiences”; it was “Vincent” by Don McLean that first got me interested in Van Gogh, after all; who cares where the urge comes from as long as you go looking for something) but I like the whole idea of considering what might’ve happened had he headed for Greenland (and, for all I know, he considered it).

15. Over a century later, Museum, his works make spectators unpleasantly cold. Some say, “We should go someplace warm.” “Starbucks?” “Tahiti!”

And I’m particularly fond of list formats. By the way, one of my claims to fame is that I’ve never been inside a Starbucks.

And back to full-length short stories for a while:


What I mean is, he wasn’t the guy I’d always assumed he’d become. I hadn’t really thought about him over the years, but in my non-thinking, punctuated with the occasional thought, he’d become someone else. An engineer, like me. Or a lawyer. Or maybe gotten his MBA, gone into business.… The guy in front of me quite simply wasn’t the right Scully. It was someone who had begun as Scully but whose life had diverged imperceptibly from Scully’s at some point, two vectors departing from a single node.

This is probably the story with the most traditional arc, including a dramatic confrontation fraught with danger (as any confrontation on the side of a mountain is liable to be), yet (or, perhaps, thus) I think it’s my least favorite of the full-length stories. A man on vacation with his family runs into an old high school pal at the Continental Divide, and since the pal has changed a great deal, he wonders if he may have left pieces of his own self unexplored. Their adventures at the high school planetarium feature in their reminiscence (the second high school I went to had a planetarium that was hardly ever used; we had no astronomy courses, but I took the full three years of science classes and was only allowed inside once), as well as their relative roles as leader and follower, as the guy who does the work and the guy who gets the credit, the guy who’s remembered and the one who’s forgotten. Dualism is well-played throughout: the east/west of the Continental Divide itself, inside and outside, the old Scully and the new Scully, the planetarium/city vs the stars/nature (a theme that shows up in “Urban Planning: Case Study Number Six”); there’s also the thricefold denial (of himself, interestingly enough), which is so subtle and underplayed I even wonder if it was intended to evoke the Biblical betrayal (I have been known to overread… often).

I was slightly distracted by a couple of things: the guy named his kids Emmett and Kelly – after the clown? And Emmett has to be reminded not to stick his finger in his eye? Shades of Ruprecht from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels!

All of this orbited around me, but I somehow couldn’t get into the rhythm. It’s a well-done story. But it didn’t quite reach me the way the others did. That’s a good thing, though; it shows me I’m not just star-struck.

Tim’s comments on the story, and the “voice” he tries to capture in his works, in his Story Prize interview, however… now this resonated: “I think he embodies a key aspect of why we’re reading and writing fiction, partly to get out of our skins, even while another part of us wants to be more fully inside them. This tension—or maybe these impulses dovetail perfectly — is an element that drives some of my favorite stories: they make us other in some way that makes us more fully ourselves….” Having just spent most of last summer examining the need to become “the other” in order to understand the other through the Fiction of Relationship MOOC I took (and blogged about extensively for months; still do in fact, as “the other” crops up a lot in literature), I get this. At least, I get it in “The Understory” and “Circulation” and “The Discipline of Shadows” and in most of the Urban Planning: Case Studies; I just don’t get it in this story. Maybe I will on next read, now that I know what to look for here.


It seemed as if Angus has picked up their father’s ingenuity, while Pete had inherited his patience and gumption. Everyone could see what a shame it was that these traits had been doled out to two distinct sons. Really, Angus and Pete’s father’s ultimate invention would have been a way to combine Angus and Pete.… Instead, Pete and Angus stagger around like severed halves of a whole.… And let’s face it, having these traits combined into one hadn’t worked out for their dad to begin with, so maybe it wasn’t meant to be.

I’m reverting to list format, which I do when I’m overwhelmed with much to say and unsure how to say it. This is a cleaned-up version of my notes, because the best thing I learned from ModPo is, if you can’t get it right, show the process:

1. In his recent interview with Edward Rathke at Monkeybicycle, Tim said this story began, not with an idea, but “with the title, which in turn set the stage for a certain mood, an energy that would propel the dynamics of the story. The challenge was to write a story manic enough to earn out the advance of that outrageous title, but also to have characters who could stand in the midst of mania and juvenileness and have you somehow care about them.” To me, Pete was the epitome of responsibility and maturity, dealing in a somewhat detached and bemused way with the flow of juvenalia around him. More on the theme of two-halves-of-a-whole?

2. We have invented indoor playgrounds; playgrounds have become meat markets; adults are children; leaders are followers and the follower becomes the leader when he’s finally, at long last, able to see the leader is not someone he should be following. As an experienced follower (and crappy leader), I’m big on recognizing the skill needed for effective followship.

3. It begins and ends with bad weather, and with Runaroundandscreamalot. Don’t you just want to start an indoor playground with that name, now? A chain of playcenters all over the country? But that’s what everyone does, in different ways – trying to make ends meet, to maintain their dominance, to find companionship, to adjust to life’s changes.

4. Like Gus to his father in “Circulation,” Pete has always been the planet revolving around his brother, the son. Until the end.

5. If Docent isn’t a real online game, it should be. I don’t know who’s in charge of stuff like that, but if you do, send them this story.

6. The playcenter is in the same space as the porn video shop was before it “mysteriously” burned down – I’m gonna get some weird hits on this post (like I don’t already; you wouldn’t believe…), but I must, I simply must:

Now, as he makes his way around the space, he can remember, vile though it is, exactly where each aisle was, the one that held interracial videos, the one that was devoted to amateurs and teens, the one for thirtysomethings, the aisle set aside for “gonzo,” whatever that was, and the fellatio section, right where now there is a giant whale beanbag, like someone’s sick joke. It is as disgusting as though a child was murdered here, the bones interred beneath the ground, he thinks. But he also thinks about the irony of it all…

7. Aha, a shortcoming: Angus’ offbeat business ideas (trail surface simulating treadmills, the vacation that never ends, an obsession swap reality TV show) aren’t anywhere near bad enough. Or offbeat enough. I wonder if that’s a bug, or a feature?

8. It doesn’t have much to do with the overall story (but it must, or it wouldn’t be in there; what am I missing?) but Ariana’s story about adopting her son– she wonders what she was doing when the mother’s contractions started, what she was doing when the mother signed the papers giving up her child – is just beautiful. And I’m not big on maternal instinct.

9. Any story with the dialogue line “Can the parent or guardian of this stingray please remove him from my daughter?” – in a perfectly sensible context – should be bronzed.

“Urban Planning: Case Study Number Seven, The City in the Light of Moths available online at Conjunctions, June 20, 2011

Till he was three, Wes had fallen asleep each night with Mothlight flickering against his ceiling: semitranslucent red-pink wings that burst into petals and fading leaves and ratifying shapes that then broke apart into a red-pink snow, all of it fluttering above him gentle as a blanket.

Here’s another one where a basic description of the story – in a city where life is lived around movies, through movies, about movies, a projectionist discovers an unpleasant little secret in a unique way, and moves from rage to confusion to resolution – doesn’t begin to cover the scope or the impact.

Mothlight (1963) is a real movie, made by Stan Brakhage:

Here is a film that I made out of a deep grief. The grief is my business in a way, but the grief was helpful in squeezing the little film out of me, that I said “these crazy moths are flying into the candelight, and burning themselves to death, and that’s what’s happening to me….

David Blakeslee describes it as a “three-and-a-half minute experiment that mostly consists of gluing insect parts and plant debris on to strips of clear tape that was later transferred to 16mm film.” In every frame, you can see something different: maybe a moth wing, sure, or a leaf, but also, maybe a guy in a baseball cap and his girlfriend running through Central Park, or a mountain climber braving a snowstorm to get to the top. Yeah, you’ve got to want it. But I was so glad the story brought me to this film.

Everything in Palamoa is done in mothlight, literal or figurative; movies are the background of life. It wasn’t always that way, and we get some sense of how things came to be this way: the decision that led to The Dimming, and the ascendance of movies – as ubiquitous in Palamoa as cell phones, computers, email in our lives today. And in Palamoa, as today, there are some hold-outs.

It was something of a cliché: you’d go anticinemitic in college and then become some industry clone a year after graduation. There were, too, the older ones who predated the Dimming and still spoke nostalgically of before, right up to the citywide debates that tried their tongues and brought forth arguments of such verve and eloquence, they were sure they’d triumph. But the darkness had gone forward.

One of these hold-outs is Gunther, an old friend of Wes. He becomes crucial later on as Wes seeks solace and finds his own strength instead; what better friend than that.

We pick up the norms as we read. Cineaddiction may or may not be a real thing; Wes didn’t believe in it himself (“Nervous systems so enmeshed with films that they were needed?”) until he saw a guy freak out from staying at a movie-less party too long. The town itself is wonderfully conceived and demonstrated: an Xtown for X-rated movies, and, far more touchingly, the Memorial District:

Here they showed sold the home movies of the dead, and it was transfixing simply to stand there, taking in snippets of life, candid moments…. Only the wealthy got their own walls; for most, an hour if they were lucky, and you learned to time your paying of respects, developed a fondness for the spirits who shared that brick space with you and loves. Visiting his own dad’s four-minute, thirty-seven second wall, he’d been struck at various times by:

– Though they never spoke, the mourner who came after him, a woman who said she could never place, who slipped her black male only in the blank seconds before her own father or husband came on, then lower it immediately after, like a curtain
– the awareness that the moths who brought him such comfort as an infant had been dead, allowed to live again only as long as the film played
– the notion that one day the Memorial District would run out of walls

A projectionist, not surprisingly, is not a high-status job. It’s always been my experience that closer any worker is to the ultimate customer (a projectionist is at least in the same building as the moviegoer, unlike the actors and directors) the less status they have; this is particularly true in the medical sphere, where the nurse’s aide who has the most hands-on role in patient care (and spends the most time at the bedside, as well) has the least status – and the least pay, while the doctor, who pokes her head in for thirty seconds a day, is a different story. This connection came to me only because the projectionist’s status is mentioned specifically in the story, and from his bio I saw that Tim worked in a hospital for a time. Whether he intended this connection is not for me to say.

There’s a brilliant idea about playing movies together, one over the other: “One night he took a nature documentary and draped it, like sheer fabric, over a thriller about investment bankers…. Was that plankton in the vending machines? Marvelous.” Yes, it is. Has anyone tried this? It sounds like a Ken Goldsmith-y idea.

Narratively, the standout moment is the end, when Wes, dealing with his own confusion, gets his audience to participate in a new way of viewing a movie:

Wordlessly, then, they began to rise to their feet, some quicker than others, and reach out, tentatively at first, then with growing resolve, for the film, each of them taking a small strand, positioning their fingers carefully, pinching at the edges. To disentangle it, they had to spread out, and the line that began to form went in both directions, up the stairs, down the block. He could envision a whole new way of watching a film, walking beside it, even zooming along at twenty-four frames per second – what a ride that would be! Their arms were outstretched: matronly women, businessmen with sleeves rolled up, a woman in a wheelchair, familiar faces and new ones, arms with wrist chains and bare ones. Even Gunther, it struck him, could get behind this. In the lamplight, they resembled nothing more than mourners bearing aloft a long, winding casket. All films, he thought – everyone – should be held like this once.

In the context of the story, it’s a victory for Wes in several ways; even without that connotation, it’s a brilliant idea for a community art project. Fiction that generates art: what could be better?


… Well, the way you described it to me triggered, as I was writing it all down afterward, what I can only call a pang of jealousy toward the damned language. Yes, I know, I sound like a little bit retarded just confessing such a thing, but the way you talked about it it was like you were describing a person, and to me Tilkez is undoubtedly guy, buff/chiseled/loaded…

I think it’s quite adorable that, according to his interview at The Short Form, Tim placed this story late in the collection, because it “gets a little racy, and I feel like it only works after, you know, the reader’s gotten to know me a little bit.” It also makes sense that this is the story he chose to read at the Boston Literary Death Match in October, 2010, given the natural “racy” aura of the LDMs I’ve attended.

This epistolary story is so completely different at the end from what it seemed to be at the beginning, it’s like a seed that turns into a stem then leaves and finally a flower: how’d it do that? It covers a lot of very interesting ground for a story without much of a plot. That’s not a complaint, by the way; as long as there’s something there to read, I’m happy, and there’s definitely something here to read.

Is it flattering, or creepy, if someone takes notes on conversations you’ve had with them, and studies them before dates? If flattering, consider this: which would it be if a written record of one’s sexual encounters were kept, complete with metrics of observable enjoyment indices (I’m trying to be delicate here, rather than racy, and when I get delicate, I frequently turn academic)?

and, Is it possible to be jealous of a language?

Of course it is. Not a language, specifically, but a passion for something, anything, which appears to exceed the passion one’s beloved has for oneself; Jonathan Lethem made wonderful hay of this in Then She Climbed Across the Table. This is why human relationships are so hard; the very thing that is what interests us in a person becomes the thing we must compete with. No one wants to hang out with someone who has nothing to do but gaze adoringly all day, no matter how much fun that may be for a few minutes, but that necessarily means the gaze is diverted to something else at some point.

… But something about the way you knew the tiny quirks of the language, the exceptions and inflections – how the a rises musically through the ribs in words related to good fortune, how th and thht distinguish the two clans split by the river, how their eight words for types of fog use all thirty-seven consonants – and the passion with which you told me about these, demonstrating with your hands and mouth and throat, and by the way, as we played Scrabble, you lamented the “tragedy” of not being able to put to words in the language, and even those you were joking, partly, you still imagined moves you might have made, tallied points accordingly, rearranging your tiles, for all I know, so that they spelled out little things in Tilkez, all this even while you lacked the ability to speak it fluently, only enhanced the sense of your being in a relationship with him/it.

And since I concentrated in linguistics in college, I have to admit a fondness for any story that brings in the Sapir Whorf hypothesis (language is linked to our perception of reality) and phonemic analysis (or is it phonetic? I never could keep them straight). Tim informs me that Jennifer Haigh declared this story “The most Doritian” of LDM; I’m not sure if that refers to Doritos or a gaming character (or something that doesn’t come up on the first page of a google search), but I’m fine with it either way.

“The Conversations” – available online at The Collagist, 5/8/12

The first of the Conversations had taken place at once in Rome, in Vegas, and in Hoboken. No one knew then what they were, of course; they just seemed the talk of talkers, mundane as could be, the little dramas that unfold in the lives of all in front of the private audience of the participants and whoever else happens to be within earshot.
… The other thing that made it difficult to pick up the Conversations is that no one had the faintest fucking clue as to what they could possibly be.
They were, it ought to be emphasized, about everything and nothing. … No one knew exactly how long the Conversations had been going on before it was recognized what they were. It took a damned spot of time to figure these things out.

And what, you may be wondering, makes these conversations Conversations? Ah, now that would be spoiling; the story is online, after all. Much better to read it to find out.

One of the things that so struck me as I read was how contemporary it was. It was published in May 2012, so I suppose that’s not surprising, and the theme of lack of willingness to compromise, of rancorous argument, is hardly new. But then there’s the privacy issue.

It was only with the design of the pocket black boxes that it became possible to trace them, to record them as they transpired and then play them back….[I]t was surprising that the black boxes made it through the Court’s strenuous weeks of deliberation. They did, with the proviso that the only time their contents would be open to screening would be after a Conversation or if a Conversation was strongly suspected to be imminent. Over time, the free market took the boxes and compressed them, made them compact and funky, allowed you to personalize yours so that you felt some ownership over it, the sides aglow with yellow-green, imprinted with your floating genome map or a rotating skull. It was, like, your life. It would outlast your body.

This was written pre-Snowden. I suppose we all knew all along what Snowden finally told us, anyway, didn’t we. Maybe that’s the root of the anger directed towards him now; he’s forcing us to look at what we’ve given up, and to wonder about why.

I’m not sure this is the most successful story in terms of traditional narrative flow – it just kind of goes into reverse and stops, with no single protagonist, nor with any sign of lasting change – but that’s beside the point (or, maybe that is the point); we have very short memory spans – poor Tad, the Pro-Privacy advocate (“His trademark shirt read on the front THE ORIGINAL BLACK BOX, a play on the notion that he had “recorded” his Conversation — that is, could recall it — without the government shoving its wires into his personal space, and on the back, REMEMBER TO REMEMBER WHY WE REMEMBER…”) never stood a chance – and without memory, a long, durable memory, an accurate cultural memory of what happened, not what we want to tell our kids happened, change is impossible.

Still, I found it impossible to stop reading, and that’s probably the best definition there is of narrative flow. Maybe what it’s not successful at is presenting a narrative flow that can be described in a traditional three-point arc; it’s more of a circle, and it just so happens circular stories are a particular favorite of mine.

What scares me most in this collection is a single sentence from this story: “It would be years before the Conversations petered out into nonexistence, and by that time people had grown inured to all the changes wrought by them.” In context, it doesn’t even carry the same connotation, but it still leaps out at me and asks me, What are we doing? Don’t we realize we’ll look back in twenty-five or fifty or a hundred years and wonder what the hell were we thinking? Two hundred years ago, slavery was the way things were; seventy years ago, throwing American citizens into internment camps simply because of their origins seemed like a great idea; what will our grandchildren make of the past ten years, and especially the past five, or just this year just completed? Will the sounds of 9/11 ever completely stop, or will it just echo on and on? Will we even remember a time when we didn’t take off our shoes in the airport, or wonder who was reading our email? Will the wounds of even the past few years heal, or will we see the scars as our inheritance? But the story ends on a hopeful note: “We started back, started to come back. We started to talk again.”

That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Let’s start to come back.

“Urban Planning: Case Study Number Eight”

Raedmeon is a city built by committee, riding in on slow, lumbering beasts of burden, Weston a committee man if ever there was one. Among his secret joys is the way the dry cleaner folds and boxes his shirts, the new-map sensation of the creases cascading over his shoulders and chest each morning….
When and how did he come to be “the Bread Machine”?… So into the Machine go problems that beleaguer any self-respecting city.… Out come Proposals. Solutions (or leastways Disasters Narrowly Averted).

I think I was tired when I first read this; it went by me completely. I was a little disappointed, to be honest: here’s this great collection, and for the final word, you give me this? The next time I read it, I got it. At least I think I did; I’m becoming more and more a devotee of the “reader writes the story” idea, so what I got, may not be what you get. I got a writer, constantly asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” I got a writer in a job that requires a certain kind of writing, perhaps, a certain discipline, a writer who, when he put this collection together, this city of stories, had one thing in mind:

…relishing the thought of devoting himself fully at last to the Raedmeon he’s been quietly constructing all along, one that would never appoint a committee, where the streets are lined with luminous balustrades, and planning means nothing other than dancing in the pineapple rotundas of an untranslatable night.

Not a committee in sight in this book. But lots of pineapple rotundas.

I’m glad Tim happened along my Goodreads profile, and in spite of my initial reluctance, I’m very glad I ended up reading this book. Next time a book like this comes along – someone tell me about it, ok? And if I won’t stand still long enough to listen, remind me of Understories.

One response to “Tim Horvath: Understories (Bellevue Literary Press, 2012) [IBR]

  1. Pingback: A Grand Tour of Understories | Tim Horvath

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