by Lisa Peet
The description of the world to which you lend a benevolent ear is one thing; the description that will go the rounds of the groups of stevedores and gondoliers on the street outside my house the day of my return is another; and yet another, that which I might dictate late in life, if I were taken prisoner by Genoese pirates and put in irons in the same cell with a writer of adventure stories. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.
— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
It was the early ’80s, and we were no Genoese pirates, or even a group of stevedores—just a bunch of college-aged (but mostly not college-attending) kids: artists, musicians, bike messengers, punks, hanging around my friend Josh’s grubby East Village loft, wreathed in clouds of skunky smoke and passing around a copy of Invisible Cities to read out loud in turns. High as kites, and all of us won over by Calvino’s tales of cities discovered by the great explorer Marco Polo. Each brief chapter—they’d be considered flash fiction today—described a different city germinated from some conjured ontology. Like a time-lapse film of a flower, every one bloomed from its kernel of thought and then receded within a couple of pages: Thekla, a city in a constant state of construction so that it can never be destroyed; Argia, the underground city with earth instead of air; Irene, which can only be viewed from far away; cities that hold conglomerations of tiny household gods, neighborhoods of the dead and the unborn, ladders to the heavens, sewers to the underworld.
Calvino’s were the kind of stories that burrow themselves deep into your literary consciousness and take hold like fairy tales; all my life I’ve caught glimpses of them from the corner of my eye. So when I started reading Tim Horvath’s debut short fiction collection Understories (Bellevue Literary Press, 2012), it didn’t take long to recognize a molto simpatico writer.
This was not a stretch of the imagination. Horvath’s stories range far and wide, but the longer pieces are punctuated by short ones, titled “Urban Planning: Case Study” and numbered, each of them describing an imaginary city hatched from some interesting metaphysical conundrum. In the first, for instance, the mayor of the made-up Morrisania (no relation to the actual neighborhood in the Bronx) decides to abolish rain. In the fourth, a recent transplant to the city of Ganzoneer tries to write copy for a brochure while skirting around the fact that it has no solid surfaces. (“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 the fifth, the rise and fall of the city of Vassilonia is predicated entirely on the quality of its restaurants.
But there’s more to Tim Horvath’s rapport with Calvino than world-building. At a time when MFA programs are still hatching Dirty Realists like vast clouds of tiny spiders, Horvath’s starting point seems to lie at a kind of diametrical opposite: he’s less interested in extracting the human condition from the tea leaves of every day life than in asking the questions first and letting them inform his narrative in ways both fantastic and mundane. Horvath’s undergraduate degree was in philosophy, and a sense of disquisition still clearly informs his work—but playfully, not didactically, and never losing that Intro to Philosophy sense of wonder. Each of his stories, from the shortest and most abstract to the more realist novella-length tales, begin with a question—often several—which he then proceeds not so much to answer as to traverse, like a man on vacation, returning with postcards and souvenirs and even a few hotel ashtrays.
In truth, that sense of simpatico was not immediate. At first I found the opening story, “The Lobby,” befuddling and a little glib—what exactly did he mean by “Though we wish you to enjoy the architectural apotheosis that surrounds you, since you are a mere pedestrian onlooker (henceforth ‘voyeur’) rather than a lessee (henceforth ‘resident’), you are subject thereby to certain restrictions and provisions”? Likewise the “Urban Planning: Case Study” that followed left me wondering how, exactly, I was meant engage with this transmittal from another time and place.
And then the third story, “Circulation,” knocked me right off my feet, and I had to go back to the beginning armed with the understanding that Horvath was a totally intentional writer—that there are no accidents in Understories, not a word that can’t be justified. Everything is worked out in some equation that incorporates Horvath’s ongoing philosophical monologues, a deep-seated love of wordplay, and an architectural idea of how a story is built. I should have sussed out from the first sentence—“Welcome!”—that “The Lobby” was, in fact, the foyer of the book itself, where I was meant to step over the threshold, stop, and look around. But, as they say, second time’s the charm.
So, without regrets, I became Horvath’s “Dostostoyevskian reader”—
he reads in the manner in which he imagines that Dostoyevsky wrote—ravenous, staggering through his dimly lit apartment clutching the book, luminous with something teetering between ecstasy and epilepsy, ingesting swathes of prose in desperate gulps, like an infant born undersized, suckling harder. When once he misplaces the book and locates it at last, after a forty-minute search, concealed under an errant cushion, he collars it like a treacherous friend; he is at once too furious and too attached to reprimand for long.
“Circulation,” that third story, is a wunderkammer, a celebration of books and words but also predisposed toward matters of filial duty, the Dewey Decimal System, divorce, death, storytelling, and underground cave exploration. It revolves around two imaginary books: The Atlas of the Voyage of Things, a book the narrator’s father spent a lifetime planning but never actually wrote, other than the jacket copy (“a lavishly illustrated book that documents the marvelous, intricate, globe-trotting chain of events by which things come to be what and where they are”); and the book his father actually finished, Spelos: An Ode to Caves. Although the self-published Spelos seems destined to sit forever untouched on the town bookstore’s “local author” shelf, as his father lies in the hospital dying, the narrator Jay entertains him nightly with fanciful tales of its circulation as a library book—the people it touches, the branches it visits, its odd bookish misadventures:
[I]magine if one could speed up time, fast-forward and rewind over longer intervals, see at once all the permutations of a book’s lifetime. From this vantage point, the Director of Circulation might appear the ringleader of a circus—coordinating acrobats, elephants, fire-breathing ladies, third-rate clowns, contract renegotiations. Books would fly off the shelves in a blur, leaving gaps like children’s debut teeth, making their forays out into the world, and swooping back to their perches eventually like osprey.
“Circulation” is whimsical, but at the same time an honest tale of love in the face of familial shortcomings. It’s funny and sad and complex, an Atlas of the Voyage of Things in its own right.
Throughout Understories, Horvath sets up questions and then walks around them, examining them from all angles: Where do Heidegger, forestry, Nazism, and the New England Hurricane of 1938 intersect? What if angry words could, when you least expected it, spark literal conflagrations? If you anthropomorphized language enough, could it rouse you to jealousy? Can you imagine a city whose religion is film, with movies projected nonstop against the sides of buildings and projectionists the facilitators of everything? What if umbrology—the study of shadows—was an academic discipline? What would a box say if it could talk? (Apparently something along the lines of: “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.”)
And what might go through your head, as a loving father, if someone built a children’s play center on the former site of an adult-video store?
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 aisles set aside for “gonzo,” whatever that was, and the fellatio section, right where now there is giant whale beanbag, like someone’s sick joke.
My Invisible Cities-reading crew loved—as I still love—Calvino’s lush imagination, each city sparking some personal vision for the reader. And being rough and self-referential young things, we’d pay him the most reductive compliments: “I’ll have what he’s smoking,” or: “Man must have some craaazy dreams.” It wasn’t until years later, when I began to learn something about how hard a writer has to work to replicate the sheer luck of drugs or dreams, that I seriously considered the origin of such imagery.
Everyone knows that the all-time worst query you can put to a creative person is Where do you get your ideas? I’m going to come clean here, though, and admit that I think it’s kind of a great question—maybe not to ask outright, but to wonder about. I really am down with close reading and not appropriating external evidence as a way of artificially contextualizing work. I am.
But I can never abide by it. I will unashamedly check out the author photo before I even start the book, and am a date-of-birth Googler (as we all are, of course, at Bloom). I want to know where, if anywhere, an author studied, whose books he reads, where he grew up. I wouldn’t say all this information colors my reading, because I rarely go ferreting out the details until I’m finished with a book. So when I wonder about Tim Horvath and the weird and wonderful worlds he creates—what Nancy Pearl called his “elastic realism”—it’s from the purest kind of curiosity. Where, where, do they spring from?
Horvath is in fact forthcoming when asked. Understories, which won the New Hampshire Literary Award for Outstanding Fiction this past March, is the culmination of a long and varied writing career, and he is unfailingly interesting on the subject of craft. He has explained how “Circulation” came about by picturing an imaginary book’s dust jacket, that “Umbrology” was jump-started by a writing prompt, and how a few others came from trying out exercises he’d assigned his own classes at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, where he teaches creative writing (courses with titles like The Senses, Reading Intensely, Cinefiction, which make me wish I was in college again). “Runaroundandscreamalot!” he told Monkeybicycle, began with the title: “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.” He admits to a fascination with mazes and labyrinths, Primo Levi, and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
What these threads all have in common, though, is a pervasive sense of delight in the world and its workings. Horvath is captivated not only by ideas, but the words and phrases they’re built of. He invents new words; he loves what can be accomplished through sound and image; he obviously finds language sexy. But for all that playfulness—sometimes intellectual, sometimes bawdy—Understories is no rarefied exercise. Horvath rallies all the senses, smell and touch and taste and the others, in support of his interrogation of the universe, and his work is firmly grounded in the real world no matter how fantastic his musings.
After college, Horvath worked in the office of a group children’s home in New York, and later he went on to become a psychiatric counselor. “It forces a different kind of creativity,” he told The Nervous Breakdown’s Greg Gerke,
a survival mentality in which saying the right thing or using the right tone of voice or coming up with an apt metaphor or joke can be the deciding factor in whether someone combusts or eases into calmness. So much is at stake. I can hardly measure how much I’ve learned from the patients and counselors there.
And maybe beyond writing prompts and wordplay, it’s that willingness to take the measure of what he sees and hears—and, maybe especially, of his own questions—that gives these Understories their resonance.
Calvino’s cities have stayed with me this long because, fantastic as they may be, each holds in its heart a kernel of truth. But Calvino makes you search for it; and that truth always turns out to be more of the reader’s devising than the author’s. Understories does something similar, though less allegorically—Horvath’s fiction is firmly contemporary, rooted in evidence rather than association. But it’s clear that he wants you to keep pondering the questions he raises, and bring some of your own as well, when you’re finished reading. Happily, I still am.
Lisa Peet is a writer, editor, artist, recent recipient of a Masters in Library & Information Science, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
Lisa Peet’s previous features: Hesh Kestin: Deadlines, Word Counts, and Magnificent Lies, Jules et Jim et Henri-Pierre et François, Jane Gardam’s Characters: Organically Grown, Experience Required: The Middle of the Road, Thomas Van Essen: The Ekphrasis of Ecstasy, Experience Required: Back to School, Jon Clinch: Telling Stories on His Own Terms, Kate Chopin’s Artistic Awakenings, Deborah Eisenberg: Small-World Stories, The Bitten Word: Dracula for Everyone, Isak Dinesen: Her Own Heroine, Walker Percy: The Original Moviegoer