Tim Horvath’s debut short story collection, Understories, gets at the heart of our contemporary zeitgeist and unravels its contradictions, one obsessive scheme at a time. Echoing the intricate metaphysical labyrinths of Borges, the philosophizing literary absurdity of David Foster Wallace, and the American-styled magical realism of Lethem, Horvath’s book is a deeply reflective, highly imaginative work that examines the emotional substructure of our conceptual obsessions.
Of the twenty-one stories in the book, eight are designated, numbered “case studies” of urban planning gone awry. Given the ongoing controversies over sustainability in expanding cities like New York City and declining ones like Detroit, this is an especially timely foray into the politics of urban development. While using wit to poke fun at the tension between conceptual planning and actual living, Horvath’s ‘Case Studies’ also ask us to seriously question the shifting definition of cities themselves and the ideologies underpinning the ever-growing debates over how they should be structured and governed. Cities, once primarily centers of industry, trade, and innovation are undergoing various kinds of transformation leading to an overarching identity crisis. This predicament of the modern city is most apparent in “Urban Planning: Case Study Number Six,” whose central focus is a “city that is in denial that it was a city,” and is equally poignant and hilarious in “Urban Planning: Case Study Number Four,” which introduces Ganzoneer, a city built with nothing solid in it. Horvath draws a satirical dystopian vision of New Urbanism’s forays into redevelopment by highlighting the hipster trend of implanting country living within the confines of a man-made environment alongside quixotic academic-based interventions.
The often absurd paths of urban renewal extend beyond the dreams of neo-hippie transplants, as demonstrated in “Urban Planning: Case Study Number Five,” set in Vassilonia. Horvath describes it as “a faceless, generic city, a seat of colorless commerce and bleak industry,” until a group of restaurateurs who call themselves “The Fearless Nine” forms a coalition to encourage everyone to eat out all the time, leading to the development of “critics, a rising class of academics who, it must be said, never learned to cook themselves, only to depict and analyze the dishes of others.”
The irony of the price we pay to live in these new centers of consumption-over-creation is most poignantly addressed in “Urban Planning: Case Study Number Three,” in which the narrator finds himself joyously wandering around the fictional city of Manswer-Anatoli, noting it is “teeming with life” without ever realizing it is a city for the dead. The first story in the book, though, “The Lobby,” helps set the tone for reading the Urban Case Studies. Utilizing language reminiscent of department store catalogues, amusement park signs and overly-detailed legal fine print aimed at visiting “voyeurs” rather than residents, the story’s characters forsake real participation under the guise of a lived experience, submitting themselves to the deified, stamp-approved vision of absent architects. A heavily formalist, but completely prescribed, appreciation of the lobby’s aesthetics is encouraged while personal engagement with the work is strictly prohibited.
While stories like “The Lobby” address general issues, Horvath directly references some of the biggest figures of urban planning in the twentieth century when discussing the overly-controlled nature of modern cities. He recalls Jane Jacobs’ critiques of Robert Moses’ modernist urban aesthetics in “Urban Planning: Case Study Number One.” The story takes place in a city called Morrisania, whose mayor is focused on stopping its citizens from being plagued by the rain. The fictional Morrisania is modeled on the historic South Bronx, whose tenements were razed thanks to Moses’ vision favoring public housing projects and leading to the creation of the Cross-Bronx Expressway. These changes were controversial and some, like Jacobs, argued that they led to an increase of poverty and crime by decimating street life. Dubbed by radio pundits “fascist…in a good way,” the mayor of Morrisania employs rhetorical strategies that reveal the hubris often associated with the contentious Moses and calls to mind parallels with more recent polarizing leaders such as New York City’s recently retired mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
The legacies of other larger-than-life intellectual figures are referenced in other stories in the book, as well. The influences of Marx, Heidegger and Plato in particular are given careful consideration. Delagotha, a pun in reference to Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program (Critica Programului de la Gotha),” is the setting for “Urban Planning: Case Study Number Two.” In Delagotha, marketplaces sell “nothing other than still-smaller marketplaces,” marking the city’s symbolic and real regress. And, in “Urban Planning: Case Study Number Seven,” subtitled “The City in the Light of Moths,” films are screened mindlessly on every available surface, causing a rebellious citizen to derisively refer to them as, “the new opiate of the masses”.
Other stories, interwoven with the ‘Case Studies,’ probe the emotionally-driven marginal scholarly obsessions of alienated academics. In the book’s eponymous story, “The Understory,” a retired, expat professor recounts his conversations with Heidegger as the rise of a Nazi-occupied Germany looms in the background. The discussions become ruminations on the growing divide between the disciplines of philosophy and science and his reflections on them become meditations on meaning itself. In “The Discipline of Shadows,” another pensive professor aims to make “Umbrology” a respected field of study, while lamenting that all of Western philosophy has become a footnote to Plato. Likewise, “Tilkez” focuses on a young graduate student’s passion for preserving a dying language, a preoccupation so intense that her boyfriend jealously likens her passion for it to a full-blown romantic relationship with another man.
Each of these stories parses out the charged relationship between personal bonds and professional pursuits, eschewing the artificial heart-mind dichotomy. Objects of study become conduits for compassion and connection. Essentially anti-solipsistic, the passion of these inspired underdogs is fortified by a yearning for meaning that extends beyond each of us as individuals. This is most touchingly elicited in the story “Circulation,” in which a librarian’s son invents elaborate stories about fictional readers who borrowed his moribund father’s one published book on caves. Not having the heart to tell his father the truth, that the book has gone unborrowed for years, he rhetorically asks, “At what point does one recognize that the truth is precisely the wrong instrument for a task?”
Understories urges us to question the usefulness of the prevailing instruments that are chosen for the task of improving the world. Rather than choosing to strictly celebrate or criticize certain schools of thought or social movements, Horvath’s stories collectively negotiate the nuances of influential ideas as they come to fruition in fictional worlds constructed of logical extremes. The calculated environments of the power elite in the ‘Case Studies’ are placed alongside the musings of outsider theorists in the other stories, allowing us to traverse Horvath’s maze of tales without losing sight of the larger implications of both the world of ideas and the matters of the heart.