Monday, September 10, 2012

Understories- Tim Horvath

Understories, Tim Horvath
Bellevue Literary Press, 2012

"It's not what the shadow tells us about the figure but about the ground that ultimately matters." 
- The Discipline of Shadows

There are stories that we experience largely on the surface - those which are densely packed with physical action, or which travel great distances, or which take place in loudly spoken conversation. And then there are the stories of the interior, stories of dramatic inner changes which may be barely visible from without, but which are felt profoundly within. They aren't showy; their power comes from underneath and has the potential to both anchor and unearth; such are the stories of Tim Horvath's elegant short fiction collection Understories.

The stories of Understories are of two strikingly different styles. Many are realistic fiction, explorations of quiet but poignant shifts in relationships set in worlds and among people who will seem familiar. In one of my favorites, Understory, from which the collection title is drawn, an elderly botanist's devotion to an untamed patch of forest connects him to an unresolved, broken friendship from the past, as well as to friends and relatives lost in the Holocaust. In The Discipline of Shadows, an academic is brilliantly attuned to the many variations of grey, but somehow oblivious to the interpersonal dynamics that surround him in living color. Runaroundandscreamalot! deftly (and humorously) captures the moment-to-moment insecurities of the emotional wilderness that is parenting. Planetarium tensely portrays a seemingly minor disagreement between two former schoolmates. These are perceptive and insightful, in subtle but lovely ways.

Horvath also takes us to more alien and surreal places. In addition to stand-alone stories such as the whimsical A Box of One's Own and the (literally) explosive The Conversations are eight stories serialized as "Urban Planning: Case Study Number One" (and so forth). In one, the ground below us jiggles like Jell-O; in another, films surround us everywhere and all the time; in yet another, our restaurant-dependent society collapses, threatening us with starvation. I tend to prefer realistic fiction, but very much enjoyed reading these as well (as in most collections, there were one or two I liked perhaps a little less), finding them often witty, sometimes sad, and always thought-provoking.

I marvelled at the range of the stories and the breadth of the universe from which their details and references are drawn - in addition to highly imagined settings, we encounter far-flung locales and cultures (Germany, Rome, the woods of New Hampshire), identities and lifestyles (spelunkers, parents, academics, gourmet foodies, cinéastes, linguists), philosophers (Plato, Heidegger) and artists (Gauguin), and more, all convincingly, no less. There is so much to appreciate in these intelligent and eloquently written, yet deceivingly understated stories, you may wish to read some of them more than once.

My thanks to the author for a review copy of Understories. You can learn more about Understories at the publisher's website, and find author Tim Horvath at his homepage  and on twitter.

Happy reading!


  1. Sounds like a good variety of tales, I especially like the sound of the eight stories you mention, particularly intriguing. I was thinking we're not really restaurant-dependent in reality, but then I remembered the number of times I've been hungry in the evening after dinner and hello 24 hour McD's. I can see why you enjoyed the book!

    1. Thanks Charlie, and LOL, can definitely relate! Yes if you like to consider alternate worlds of sorts, you'd enjoy that series. Impressive range of stories in this collection.

  2. Oh wow -- sounds good -- I love deft, complicated, pretty fiction -- and I'm starting to grow on short fiction -- so I'll have to add this to the TBR. As always, you've sold on something wholly new to me and I'm grateful! ;)

    1. Thanks, Audra- if you get to read them, I'd love to know what you think!


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