Bellevue Literary Press
I have always loved strange stories. Whether centering on weird phenomenon, presented in a bizarre manner, or what have you, oddity has always captured my interest. Really, I think this is true for most people. Our brains are wired to look for differences, novelty. We may seek out hints of the familiar in order to relate to something we perceive, but we can’t deny the pull of the unusual. That’s exactly why I knew I was going to enjoy Understories by Tim Horvath. Regardless of any other merits of the stories in that collection, I could see from the description on the back of the book that there would be imagination to spare.
Just consider this portion from “A Box of One’s Own” by way of example:
A guy started carrying a box around the neighborhood one day. Not a small box, the type swaddles in clear tape and addressed with scented marker; no, this was a great strapping thing, cardboard limbs flailing akimbo from a cardboard torso, defying its carrier to heft it without tripping or colliding with a wall. It was like the guy was about to give birth, unable to see his own feet, while also blindfolded. I’d seen the pregnant prancing in maternity blindfolds before, and it made me nervous, it made me cringe, I tell you.
After seeing him parading around like this up and down the sidewalks for a week or so, I confronted him. “Hey buddy, so what’s in the box?” I figured he’d already ben spoken to; I figured he’d have a set answer by now, maybe three if he was smart.
A snarl. “Do you really care?” It was the box that spoke. The man wielding the box kept going, his trajectory not unlike that of a rickshaw operator with dementia.
The narration is odd (such as the fact that a box is described as “a great strapping thing” with “cardboard limbs flailing akimbo from a cardboard torso), the premise is odd (such as the fact that some guy is carrying around a cardboard box for a week or so), and even the way that events unfold is odd (such as the fact that the box replies to a question). It’s strange on the surface, in the middle, and on the bottom. There was no way I could stop reading the story at that point…not that I had any desire to stop.
However, though the imagination in the stories of Understories is incredible, the stories don’t rest on the wildness. They would be touching and captivating stories even if they didn’t include happenings like Gauguin spending his career in Greenland instead of Tahiti. The emotional lives of the characters that Horvath conveys would be enough on its own. Just look at this bit from “The Discipline of Shadows”:
The morning Edmund informed me that next semester he was going to work with Lew rather than me, I’d been daydreaming and had almost rammed into a stopped car that was waiting for some animal to cross. I’d managed to slam on the brakes, and my pulse was still pounding when I arrived at the office. Edmund slipped his news, then, into this strange pocket of relief.
“Well.” I’d sucked in my breath, disappointment lodging somewhere down in the region of my diaphragm. “That’s fantastic. And all the Greek you’ve been learning–you’re simply going to forget it?”
“Never!” he said in mock horror. His tone picoted, though. “It does make sense, though, doesn’t it? You support the move?”
It did. It shouldn’t have arrived as a shock. With the majors or even those with an umbrology concentration, I’m their first love, ushering them into the field. I do a little bit of everything in Intro, an exotic uncle with a seemingly bottomless bag of novelties, a living room vaudeville act. Once they’ve had a taste of the more advanced classes, though, steeped in one or another subfield, they specialize. Mostly, the move on, cordial to a fault–I get an occasional email, or they drop in to tell me about their thesis or gripe about how Abelard holds their papers hostage.
As you can see, the professor who is constantly abandoned by the students he has nurtured when they don’t need him anymore is interesting by itself, even if he wasn’t a professor of umbrology (the study of shadows, as if you didn’t know). The strange features of the story aren’t required to make it work, just like all of the stories of this collection, but the bizarre imagination makes it all the more enjoyable.
In the end, though I may have come to Understories for the weirdness, I stayed around for the quality of the writing and the emotions of the characters. To be sure, I’ll be sticking around a bit longer. This is my first experience with Horvath and I’m definitely hooked. Strange or not, I want more.