Tim Horvath's debut collection of stories explores, as the title suggests, the world just beneath the standard short piece of fiction -- the story beneath the story. The pieces in "Understories" alternate between the fantastic and the starkly realist forms of storytelling, sometimes within the same story. The effect is profound; it recognizes the magic of everyday life without crossing too far into the dreamlike.
Granted, some of the strongest stories in the collection lean toward realism. "Circulation" finds a librarian struggling with the approaching death of his father and sorting through the notes for his to-be-unfinished book, an "atlas of the voyages of things." The son tells stories to his father, of his father, of commerce and fiction and families, and lost chances. "Circulation" deserves its place at the start of this collection -- it's an absolutely exceptional story, one with more to say on the human condition than most full books.
The title story, another of the more "realist" in the book, tells of a professor of biology -- trees, specifically -- who befriends eminent philosopher Martin Heidegger. Their friendship forms shortly before the rise of Hitler and Naziism, their walks in the woods leading to a better understanding of each other's worldview, until Heidegger inexplicably sides with the Nazis, and the narrator flees the country. It's a story told from the biology professor grown old, and while it doesn't pretend to have any answers or offer any solutions, it does offer a small amount of solace and clarity.
Readers with more of a taste for leaps of imagination along the lines of Calvino or Borges will also find themselves dog-earring their share of pages. College departmental politics feature in "The Discipline of Shadows," concerning "umbrology" (the study of shadows), with physicists and shadow puppeteers jockeying for the same promotions. No doubt Horvath's own background as a teacher provided the source material, but his imagination takes the story to the next level.
Horvath has a fertile imagination and the vocabulary to match, referring to "the catacombs of blog commentary threads" and detailing the plans of a city to outlaw rain, with results that unfold in surprising ways. He returns to cities multiple times, finding rich veins of material in the machinations of urban planners.
Not every story resonates; some of the shorter pieces feel more like exercises in quirkiness, ideas not fully developed, but these are the exceptions. Taken as a complete work, "Understories" is a remarkable collection, with pitch-perfect leaps of imagination side-by-side with characters struggling in wholly recognizable ways.
Matthew Tiffany is a writer and psychotherapist in Maine. He blogs at condalmo.com.