Undercities

understoriesThe Short Version: A collection of stories that blur the lines (sometimes heavily) between what’s ordinary and what’s extraordinary – and what’s weird.  Cities in the Calvino style, the imaginary travels of a library book about caves, an appearance by Heidegger – it’s all possible inside this collection.

The Review: (ed note -This is a tough one for me, a first time circumstance, but one that was unavoidable – it had to happen eventually.  This book was sent to me by the author, who has complimented this blog’s at times “unflinching” critical tone and thought I might be interested in his book.  So to now turn that sharp gaze upon his book… Well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles I guess.  So, here we go.)

There are flashes of brilliance in Tim Horvath’s first collection of short stories.  The Calvino-esque linked stories I mentioned in The Short Version, for example, are a promising idea.  I’m quite excited to visit Trude in Eric Lundgren’s The Facades – and I still haven’t actually read Invisible Cities, so I’m all for this concept of these strange and lost cities that are centered around a particular… thing… But while the ideas for these cities are fascinating – particularly a city composed entirely of restaurants and its rise and fall – the problem comes from Horvath’s overly exuberant writing.

In fact, that’s my problem with most of the stories in this book.  I like a good unique turn of phrase or a particularly well-deployed unusual word… but Horvath seems never to’ve met a purple phrase he didn’t want to include in a story.  The first clue that I would have trouble with the book came at the end of second story, when he closes out a several-lines-long sentence with the words “the fricative rub of the consonants”.  Or this one: “How sweet they felt, then, that first time it rained, the dolorous globules, reaching my head only after caroming off the long-suffering bottoms of my feet!”
I can only imagine that such writing was quite fun to write – but I struggle when an author gets so wrapped up in verbiage.  For one thing – and I say this as someone who enjoys deploying ridiculous words and phrases from time to time – no one talks like that.  No one sounds like that, not naturally.  I’m not saying novels, stories, prose in general need to sound like we as human begins sound – but there’s a reason Shakespeare (to take the over-used example) still sounds so good: his writing mimics the most engaging flow of ordinary speech.  On the flip side, there’s a reason we all make fun of Kakutani’s overuse of the word “limn” – it sticks out, unnatural even in its elegance.

The sad part is, Horvath is not an untalented writer.  Some of these stories show real promise.  Although many of even these good ones suffer to some extent from the Rebecca Lee disease, I’d like to single out three that really struck me as worth the price of admission: “Runaroundandscreamalot!”, “The Understory”, and “Planetarium”.  Each of them features a protagonist coming to terms with life, often in simple and well-treaded ways, but Horvath manages to make them feel engaging.  As the narrator of “The Understory” reflects on his time with Heidegger in Germany, as professors just before WWII, he’s also looking out on a copse of trees his descendants want to tame and trim – and the single remaining fervent desire to let it grow free and natural is perfectly matched to the old man’s strong desire to have that freedom and wildness of youth again.  AND, blessedly, that subtext remains just that: subtext.  It’s unspoken in the story and it makes it the best of the collection.  Similarly, “Runaround…” and “Planetarium” see men grappling with fatherhood/adulthood/spousehood when they’ve barely managed to leave their own adolescence – and it all happens without much force; the stories just sort of flow out, and while there are odd eddies and swirls here and there, they end up being lightly beautiful.

Unfortunately, they’re outnumbered here by the stories that feel frivolous or unfocused.  The collection is too long by a few stories, mostly the ones that are only two or three pages and don’t actually really tell much of a story.  “Pocket”, for example, feels like an attempt to do something interesting with nested narrative and pocket universes but it doesn’t come anywhere near attempts by other spec-fic writers to do just that.  And “The Gendarmes” starts out with a cute concept but quickly spins off into something that feels like you’re reading an acid trip or a lucid dream – and why couldn’t it have just been that a group of gendarmes were playing baseball on this guy’s roof?  That’s a weird and interesting enough story as it is – so let that be enough.  There needs to be a tighter leash on these ideas.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.  For the handful of stories (there are a few more than the three mentioned earlier) that really stick out in this collection, I’m glad to’ve read it – I think “Circulation” and the idea of the made-up travels of a library book may stick in my head long after I’d expect it to’ve washed away – but I really struggled to enjoy the rest of the book.  The overripe language and scattershot ideas of the rest of the stories left me feeling vaguely irritated, like you sort of get an itch on the back of your tongue.  And it’s really too bad, because had this been a shorter collection of, say, six or seven stories?  It could’ve been a much more pleasurable read for me.

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