[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Tim Horvath has an amazing imagination. He can take his work in academe (as a writing teacher) and turn it into a story about a dying department of umbrology, the study of shadows, complete with all the political scheming for promotion and infighting about ancient scholars (Galileo or Socrates?) you might expect in such a story. But then he can also imbue it with poetry when describing a lunar eclipse, or with whimsy, as in relating his experiences watching shadows on a ski slope, or even the nature of love (“she told me once she preferred rainy days because on them I looked at her more directly”). The entirety of “The Discipline of Shadows” is so strange, and yet so familiar, that it can induce vertigo.
Understories, Horvath’s first collection, is full of such dizzying tales. In “The Gendarmes,” for instance, a man discovers that a baseball game is in progress on his roof. They use a special ball to play, one that can’t come into contact with chlorophyll without danger of explosion. The owner of the house shimmies up to the roof, discovering that it’s covered with artificial turf, and joins the game, because really, what else would you do when you discover a baseball game on your roof? Things get stranger from there.
The title story, “The Understory,” is an alternate history tale in which a professor of botany remembers his early adulthood years exploring a forest — the Schwarzwald — with a philosopher teaching at the same university, Martin Heidegger. The botanist, a Jew, escaped to America before Hitler did his worst, but he has never fully relinquished his feelings of fellowship with Heidegger. Years after the war, Heidegger attempts to explain his “brush” with Nazism in a magazine interview, though he does not apologize or express regret for his entanglement with the regime. The botanist, now an old man almost unable to walk through his own piece of forest in Florida, reflects on his early relationship with this man who fundamentally betrayed him. It is a thoughtful elegy on friendship and history, quiet and elegant.
I was most taken with the “Urban Planning” stories, some only a few pages in length, others full-fledged stories, that are scattered throughout the book. These stories remind me of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams in their exploration of an imaginary conceit. Invisible Cities dealt with imaginary cities in existence at the time of Marco Polo, which he describes to an Asian ruler; Lightman’s novel envisions places where time, gravity and other laws of physics behave entirely differently than they do in our world; and Horvath speaks of cities that could be in today’s world. In one of these cities, a mayor decides that the citizens should never again be “plagued” by rain, and so creates an intricate webbing of awnings to be deployed whenever the skies open up. In another, streets and sidewalks are elastic in nature, jiggling like gelatin underfoot. Another city is populated exclusively by chefs and those who partake of their feasts, and no one ever speaks of anything but food. The longest of these excursions into cities that do not exist is “The City in the Light of Moths,” in which movies are the raison d’etre of the entire population. These stories are triumphs of the imagination.
I spent months reading Understories, the way one will hoard a favorite food, eating only a bite or two at a time, to make it last. I reread as I read, finding new oddities and delights each time I flipped through the pages. This book was one of the best of 2012. I can hardly wait to see what Horvath will come up with next.