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What if there were a city that consisted only of restaurants? What if Paul Gauguin had gone to Greenland instead of Tahiti? What if there were a field called umbrology, the study of shadows, where physicists and shadow puppeteers worked side by side? Full of speculative daring though firmly anchored in the tradition of realism, Tim Horvath’s stories explore all of this and more— blending the everyday and wondrous to contend with age-old themes of loss, identity, imagination, and the search for human connection. Whether making offhand references to Mystery Science Theater, providing a new perspective on Heidegger’s philosophy and forays into Nazism, or following the imaginary travels of a library book, Horvath’s writing is as entertaining as it is thought provoking.

256 pages, Paperback

First published May 1, 2012

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Tim Horvath

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 81 reviews
Profile Image for karen.
3,978 reviews170k followers
March 2, 2020
tim horvath is an author who is enamored with language and conceptual gymnastics. i am in love with half of those things.

so, i did not get as dewy-eyed, or dewy-glansed as mfso, just because of my difficulty with abstractions. i have one. i am fine with magical realism, but some of the more philosophical abstractions and metafictional efforts just fray my patience. for example, Altered Native; 16 numbered paragraphs about paul gaugin, did nothing for me, apart from make me curious about walrus erotica. i am just a simple soul, and i didn't understand what that story was hoping to achieve. it's not bad, it's just one of those things that is "not for me." i am a fan of pure storytelling, where the writerly flourishes enhance the story, but are not standing in for the story.

however, Runaroundandscreamalot! was superb, and completely for me!

Her son inverts the chalk and begins a series of stabs at the dragon, yelling, "Die! Die!"

"Hanh, Hanh," she calls out—he sees the kid's tagged his name in giant letters next to the dragon—and she shoots Pete a look which he interprets as "Respect me in spite of and possibly a bit more for my son's crazed rambunctious streak?" And he tries to shrug and nod in a way that conveys "Hey, just us parents in here, all figuring out this parent thing together." Since becoming a dad he talks less and gestures more, and he wonders if this is the case for all parents, too fatigued to form words, but able to speak volumes in a shrug, a twitch.


...he sees that her T-shirt exposes if not her actual nipples, then at the very least a brassiere that implies nipples in the sense that boarded-up windows in a building strongly indicate poverty or the aftermath of a fire.

this particular story is full of astute observations about parental love, post-divorce dating, and our perception of spam emails. and it is funny to boot. it is probably the least playful of the stories, structurally, but definitely the one most concerned with the verb/noun of "play."

there are other standouts:

Urban Planning: Case Study Number Five, describing a city of gourmands which has fallen on hard times. it recounts their glorious beginnings,

An ethos began to take hold with unspoken rules. Don't try to compete with your neighbor—don't try to one-up him on his most popular dishes, steal her secret recipes, mimic their decor. Be different, strive for uniqueness, and eventually people will line up at your door. If offered the choice between Cerignolas and Luganos, it is human nature to choose one type of olive on Monday and another on Tuesday, but if faced with seven brands of Kalamata, they'll gravitate toward one jar and cling to it. Hence, you had to be nonredundant. This ensured that you could get not only Chinese but also Mandarin, Szechuan, Guayadongian; not just Indian but Navratan, Gujarati; not merely Moroccan but that indigenous to the town of Tafroute; the cuisines of Tasmania, Ganzoneer, Tibet, Raedmeon, Argentina, El Salvador, Vitamora, and Morrisania were all readily available.

it is heartbreaking to witness the decline of such a perfect-to-me sounding city.

but they will not go gentle:

At first, they attempted to occupy, but this proved impractical. Their soldiers came in with their bland tinned rations, and we fought back the only way we knew how, with spices we'd stockpiled for generations. Hot sauces, so far off the scale of Scoville units that the word atomic wasn't mere hyperbole, found its way into their meals. Prunes that seemed to explode in the intestinal tract. Glass noodles containing actual bits of glass.

this is why i love this book; he has a knack for creating these worlds wherein strange and beautiful occurrences exist alongside social commentaries and recognizable observations.

The Conversations might be the best of these—the difficulties of communication ramped up a notch where fear of death-by-explosion stifles even the most basic of conversations, and the final page is just a wonderful explosion of words itself.

many of these stories are treasures, which you should discover, even if occasionally, for me, the ideas got ahead of the story.

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Brian.
Author 1 book978 followers
December 26, 2014
I will profess to not knowing very much in this life but I will go to the mat, kicking-and-screaming, proclaiming my self-crowned king of short fiction. I love this genre so much that if I was told on pain of death I would never be able to read any other genre, I would salute all those unread Tolstoys and Joyces and never look back. In an alternate universe I followed that childhood itch to be a full-time writer and follow in the footsteps of Flannery O’Connor, Tobias Wolff, Jim Shepard, George Saunders, Charles Baxter.

Thank you for suffering that preamble; but I don’t want it to point to me, I want to you to understand that when I say Tim Horvath’s Understories isn’t just a fantastic book – it’s one of the best collections of short fiction I’ve ever read - that this opinion comes from a mind packed with countless short fiction collections. I finished the final story this morning and then disrupted two friends’ Christmas time with their families with a phone call to tell them they needed to purchase this book. It’s that good.

Understories has the heft and scope of a binary-star solar system. Two stories in this collection of 21 pieces are Betelgeuse bright and feel like the twin of each other, despite being told in completely unique voices and dealing with motifs of their own. The first of these, “Circulation” left me breathless. It is as close to a perfect work of short fiction that I’ve read (the other being “Stray Dogs” by Mark Richard). I took a 24 hour break from Understories after this work to chew on it, wishing I had a reading buddy to meet over coffee and discuss. There’s this line:

At what point does one recognize that the truth is precisely the wrong instrument for a task?

This is the most eloquent way of asking in the most gentle and honest means possible about our humanity. You’ve just got to read this story to see how Horvath weaves a tale around this question.

The Understory is the twin-star story that provides the one-two punch within the first 100 pages of this collection. Chosen for the Raymond Carver Short Story Award, this piece uses a brief friendship between Heidegger and the story’s protagonist as the backdrop to a brilliant look at what happens when science, humanity, politics and nature collide.

I was just typing a few sentences about how “The Discipline of Shadows” and “The City in the Light of Moths” employed virtuosic short fiction writing techniques – but I just erased it all because rather than go on-and-on about why others should read this book, I’m putting my money where my mouth is. So the first three GR friends that post in the comments that they would like this book (and will read it, dammit!) I will purchase a copy and have it sent to you at the address of your liking. And everyone else, please, do yourself a great 2015 reading favor, and add this book to your TBR shelf. I promise you will not be disappointed.


Profile Image for Joshua Nomen-Mutatio.
333 reviews878 followers
July 19, 2012
Numerous sweet spots of This Reviewer (henceforth TR) were struck during the reading of Tim Horvath’s Understories. These points of contact were achieved so frequently and met so squarely as to deliver TR’s inner-discourse unto a series of manic oscillations between florid, barely lingual tangles of praise and a hushed wordless dewy-eyed reverence. There are numerous angles he might take toward this review, many of them feel like re-hashings of other reviews in which he finds slightly new words for basically the same broad evaluations: a balance between head 'n' heart; similar to X, Y, and Z authors but still altogether unique; intellectually sophisticated but not pretentious; surreal but not goofy for its own sake; immaculate and inventive sentences; et cetera. But this book deserves a more ambitious review than that. All of those broad evaluations are true, without a doubt, but they sound like overly common blurbs and they sound like the same basic things TR writes about many a great book—and TR partly writes these reviews for his own amusement (and other readerly and writerly benefits) and he really doesn't want to bore himself and/or feel any sort of deep failure towards a book that deserves much more than boilerplate praise, however artfully that plate may be boilered—er, something. So a more 'book report' style (of sorts) review is in order—so it has been determined within a deliberation room for one.

The Lobby

Horvath kicks off the collection with a short but walloping abstraction about a “lobby” that cannot be documented (or even perceived at all?), which serves, in some ways both obvious and less so, as a warning label of sorts for the contents the reader will meet thereafter. It’s a bit disorienting, not all unlike the cover image, which is merely a standard cityscape flipped upside down, but TR found it striking when juxtaposed with the simple yet mysterious title, long before peering behind this well decorated curtain.

Urban Planning: Case Study Number One

In this story—the first in a series of eight Urban Planning 'case studies'—we find a city's attempt to deal with a rather unusual form of precipitation.


A family portrait with a father’s eccentric ambitions as the centerpiece. Swirling around it are dueling brothers, death, rich symbolism and beautiful musings on the interconnectivity of all things by way of atlases, libraries and caves. TR’s sweet spots were first hit hardest in this one.

Urban Planning: Case Study Number Two

"Slowly, eventually, it started to dawn on me: five senses was madness, four mild insanity, three delusion, two wrongheadedness, and one quite simply, ideal."

The Understory

Germany right before and long after the rise and fall of Nazism as seen through a tree climbing/studying professor who befriends notorious Nazi Philosopher King, Martin Heidegger, and happens to be Jewish.

Urban Planning: Case Study Number Three

"ghosts can never sit"

The Discipline of Shadows

TR's sweet spots were pummeled in this one. It’s an oftentimes hilarious and high-minded tale of a fictional university department called Umbrology, wherein professors and researchers of multiple stripes study shadows—their physical properties, their overall nature, their relation to culture, etc. Academia is interrogated here in such an inventive way, but it’s not merely interrogated but also cherished when cherishing is called for. Some of the descriptions of deeply concentrating on shadows (both actually and in theory) are just absolutely stunning.

Urban Planning: Case Study Number Four

"Liberation harbors a dark side."


This one jumps around in rather unexpected directions and held TR's attention all the way through.

The Gendarmes

Short on words but long on weirdness.


Perhaps these are the imperceptible bits "The Lobby" foretold of?

Urban Planning: Case Study Number Five

Highly recommended to Karen Brissette. Imagine an entire city which existed solely in order to enjoy delicious gourmet foods. With several twists built in.

I loved the descriptions of how they elect their mayors.


A brilliantly conducted character study.

Urban Planning: Case Study Number Six

A tale of the city that was in denial that it was a city.


Peer way down into the details of the details of the details…

Altered Native

Multiple short alternate histories of Paul Gaugin.

Urban Planning: Case Study Number Seven:
The City in the Light of Moths

Probably TR's absolute favorite of the collection, right alongside "Circulation" and "The Discipline of Shadows." The longest and most complete and most character-driven and most conceptually profound of the eight-part Urban Planning series. A must-read for anyone with even a moderate enthusiasm for the cinema and/or with even half a brain turned towards what it is like to live in a highly entertainment-saturated world. A truly beautiful and intellectually potent love/heartbreak story starring a film projectionist and a city that craves visual media like no other.

The Conversations

A perfect follow up story to "The City in the Light of Moths" in which real, face-to-face communication is forced to return to human communities in rather explosive ways. The entire final page is a masterful distillation of the need for (and increasingly sorrowful absence of) non-mediated human contact. TR'd consider this an unofficial extension of the previous story.


A relationship tale in which a dying language alternately takes on the qualities of a lover and of a suckling infant in the minds of a romantic couple that includes a linguist who’s desperate to save a surely soon to be extinct language.

Urban Planning: Case Study Number Eight

"Note to self: Preserve a handful of dark alleys."
Profile Image for Michael Seidlinger.
Author 30 books421 followers
April 27, 2012

Simply stated, one of the highest quality story collections I've read in quite a long time. Every single story is pure brain candy.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
329 reviews270 followers
February 23, 2015
These are stories born in that zone of distortion before falling into dreams, but instead of dissolving in the daylight of reality, they are brought into heightened relief. Crowding, jostling ideas bump against the 3D prose, merging and splitting until prose and ideas are indistinguishable.
Exhilarating, funny, it exercises mind muscles you didn't know you have.
Nancy Pearl's description of 'elastic realism' fits it perfectly.
Profile Image for Richard.
Author 4 books431 followers
January 6, 2021
This collection of short stories is very unusual in many ways. It is obvious that the individual pieces are meant to be connected, and yet it took me quite a while to figure out how. There is a wide variety of themes that are presented for our consideration. These include: architecture, geography, nature, European history, sibling rivalry, language, communication, family and relationships.

But most of all, this book is about bridging gaps and reaching destinations. It is about travelling to, through, across, around, over, under, in, out, beyond, by and between. (Feel free to add any other prepositions I may have missed.) It is about the interstices and unfrequented corners which fill our lives but which are so easy to overlook.

The stories vary in length, but they are all characterized by a sparkling prose. I know that many Goodreads reviewers have commented on this, but I cannot help adding my voice to theirs. I found the way Tim wields language to be both amusing and amazing. Certain passages can stun slightly, and then proceed to expand the mind. For instance, the way the narrator talks about the Dostoyevskian reader in "Circulation." Or the description of a very special faculty in "The Department of Shadows." Or the heavily laden man in "A Box of One's Own." (Am I wrong, or is that title a playful jab at Virginia Woolf?) Or the ominous sense of mintiness which manifests itself at critical moments in "Conversations." I could go on, but I think that by now you get the picture.

For its breadth of theme, for its originality of thought and structure, for its unique blend of seriousness and humor, and especially for the virtuosity of its language and wordplay, this book is highly recommended.
Profile Image for Joseph Michael Owens.
Author 1 book55 followers
July 28, 2013
This book and Watering Heaven have been easily two of the best collections of stories I've read recently by any publisher, let alone by indie presses. I took my time with Understories and I honestly believe it was worth it to savor each story. The writing here is unbelievably good and undeniably polished. There's always a sense of uncanniness to them where you know something is happening beneath the surface, even if you can't put your finger on it right away. The stories are brilliant and masterfully written; it's really an achievement by any standard of measurement. My hat is off to Mr. Horvath. #Chapeau!
Profile Image for Adam Floridia.
583 reviews30 followers
July 24, 2013
According to Dictionary.com, the word "singular" means the following:

1.extraordinary; remarkable; exceptional: a singular success.
2.unusual or strange; odd; different: singular behavior.
3.being the only one of its kind; distinctive; unique: a singular example.
4.separate; individual.

God, I hate it when students start their papers off like that. Yet here we are. I cannot think of another word that so perfectly captures my feelings about this book. Perhaps because I am not a very creative person--alas, I'll never be the author that Horvath is--I tend to remark on "other books this reminded of" in many of my reviews. Of course, that could also be my Type A Personality's need to rigidly define and categorize everything: it is this, but not that. In that regard, this book threw me for a loop in a few ways. I don't even know whether to call it a book (as in "novel"...sort of) or a collection of short stories. The first chapter/story(?!) narrates readers' entrance into the lobby. "Okay," I think. "I'm entering Horvath's fictive world and everything herein [the book] will be part of that world." And I suppose in one sense it is, but, on the other hand, it might just be glimpses at a whole bunch of different worlds. But there is the unifying thread of the "Urban Planning: Case Stud[ies]." But those don't even have anything--at least anything obvious--at least anything obvious to me--connecting them. But then there's the fact that, as I read and think--and over-think--how to analyze what I'm reading, I also happen upon lines that suddenly seem planted just to make me think I'm on the right track. Lines like this: "There is always a sense of connectedness, of going somewhere, even if Schoner [or Horvath or the reader or just me?!] is lost mostly in the sounds of words" (61). BUT am I giving importance to that line only because it speaks to what I'm looking for? For example, take a random number, say 72. Now look for that number and you'll be amazed at how often it turns up.

So back to my feeble mind trying to categorize this book. Here's the first thing I came up with: Barth's Lost in the Funhouse. The damndest thing is that I don't think I've ever even read Lost in the Funhouse! Or if I did (is that the one where the first chapter is about sperm?) I don't remember the slightest thing (except for maybe the sperm) about it. Thus, it MUST be the title! Lost in the Funhouse is exactly how I felt while reading this. At times I was lost, but it was always fun. And guess what. After I've already got that all worked out in my own head (I swear!), I come upon this line: "It was a fun house, only a fun house asked of you a single mind state, that peculiar to fun houses, whereas Palamoa [this book?!] demanded a continuous pivot, a peering into the pockets of life as they turned themselves inside out one by one" (204-5).

So after all that, what do I know about the book? First, I know you should read it. Second, I know that all of the stories, as absurd/fantastical as many are, are human. Here I am again at a loss for just the right word, and this time Dictionary.com can't bail me out he says before he actually decides to type "human" into Dictionary.com.

According to Dictionary.com, the word "human" means the following:

1.of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or having the nature of people: human frailty.
2.consisting of people: the human race.
3.of or pertaining to the social aspect of people: human affairs.
4.sympathetic; humane: a warmly human understanding.

Perfect! In these various fictions, Horvath seamlessly weaves real humanity with surreal settings/situations. It's like he knows "exactly where the cogs of illusion meshed and where the seams flickered by undetected, how life could be adjusted with the efficiency a tailor takes to a suit: a few seconds trimmed here, an inversion or two, a telling juxtaposition, voila" (202). To further enhance the illusion and make me lose sight of the surreality of the whole thing is the language. There are some many beautiful sentences in here. At times--to return to my need to categorize, to compare--I definitely got faint whiffs of Wallace (DF). No, there aren't copious foot/end notes, but some sentences manage to be so long and still seem so natural because they just flow so well AND they plant erudite, scholarly language smack dab next to crass, colloquialisms that it's hard not to think of DFW. In fact, my one complaint about this book is that it is (sort of?) a collection of short stories. I loved the characters, the premises, the ideas so I was constantly disappointed by the endings. However, it probably wasn't even the quality of the endings but rather the fact that there were endings so quickly. Basically, I'm saying that I want to read Horvath's 1,100 page masterpiece, his Infinite Jest.

And now, as I draw to a close, I realize that I've written all that and really haven't told you much about the actual stories. Don't get me wrong, they certainly don't totally defy description, I just rambled in a different vein. If you pick up this book--pick up this book--you will get some of, but not limited to, the following: a dying father obsessed with the journeys of things and his son's touching, comforting stories which, themselves, speak to the power of fiction; an eccentric professor and his displacement in/from Nazi Germany; a soul's passage to death; the realistically comical and comically realistic depiction of a college's faculty interactions, but in the department of Umbrology, and one professor's lone passion for his subject; a family vacation that leads to the all too-familiar thoughts of "What if...What could have been?" and the often jarring, even upsetting realization that there is no one "right" path to lead through life (this was a favorite of mine); some pseudo baseball players on a roof; a scrupulously accurate description of bringing your child to a public place to interact with other children and all of the interactions that entails (another favorite!); a world of people who only come to truly value conversation and the power/importance of expressing oneself after it was explosively taken away from them; and a whole lot more. Even as I was writing this list of ever-so-brief synopses, I thought about deleting this whole paragraph because none of those are good descriptions of what the stories are about.

I guess I'll simply have to stick to this: the stories are singular and the stories are human.

422 reviews169 followers
September 8, 2013
Understories is made up mostly of the best kind of challenges fiction can offer us. These are stories, this is a book, that wants to teach you how to read it. It is, at times, heavily allusive, but it also has its own distinct grammar. Its sentences shimmer. It is an intellectual pleasure, a challenge and an education, but doesn't forget that human readers, most of us, like our lit to be more than a set of puzzles and provocations of thought.

As someone who dabbles in writing fiction like Annie Hall dabbles in photography, I envy Mr. Horvath his tremendous imagination. Unlike collections in which every story is some variation on one already tired theme, or collections which are merely cobbled commercial artifacts, Understories manages the rare trick of featuring a wide range of subject matter, a veritable cornucopia of themes, while remaining... unified, much like a good novel is. I think that's because there's a terrific voice here, with a lot to say. I already said that the sentences in Understories shimmer, but that's not all of it. There's a real fascination conceptually with language here and that fascination spills over into the use of language in this book, so you're reading something that both deals with language and manifests an understanding of language far more profound than most books do.

Mostly what drove my interest while reading this book was curiosity, curiosity about what was going to happen, that's kind of a basic story-level thing, but also a grander curiosity, a wonder. I'm not making much sense, so I'll just use my testicular fortitude for the week and say that I sometimes felt while reading "Understories" what I feel while reading Borges.

The following were my three favourites:

"The Understory," which it seems to me is a real insightful story of soured friendship that doubles as an interrogation of Heidegger as a person/character and as a philosopher.

"The Discipline of Shadows," in which I learned about Umbrology, the study of shadows. Umbrology has got to be the greatest fictional academic discipline I've ever come across. But, y'know, this thing's got even more than that going for it. One of the funniest and smartest pieces in the book, for sure, and one of the better pieces of short fiction I've read recently.

"Urban Planning: Case Study Number Seven: The City in the Light of Moths." This was my favourite piece in the book, and I find it hard to explain what I think is so utterly brilliant about it. I think urban cinephiles might get more out of this one than others might, but it does so many things right it's hard to justify even that claim. Beautiful, just gorgeous story, plus what seems to me like real valuable social commentary.

Finished reading this a short while ago, but have been putting off writing a review of it. I was worried that my review would be one of those faintly embarrassing adjective-laden things I write, which it has unfortunately turned out to be. But if you've read this far, you should reward yourself by reading something better, like Understories, y'know?
Profile Image for Peter Tieryas.
Author 25 books688 followers
February 27, 2013
Video review up:

I did a half review half essay about Understories at Punchnel's. I have a video review forthcoming and just wanted to post a link to my article which talks about how the story, Understories, reminded me of an episde from my university days, ha ha.

"A department studying shadows, a city of only restaurants, Heidegger, my old classes in Berkeley; it’s a potpourri of ideas connected by Tim Horvath’s Understories. Some books inspire, others seize. Understories seizes, shakes, then splits everything open.

I really enjoyed Horvath’s earlier novella, Circulation, which came out a few years back, so I was excited about this full-blown collection and greedily devoured its pages when it came out. The collection is wrapped in a series of urban planning case studies, analyzing the impulses of human nature in its many forms, devious and all too relatable. One story in particular was especially meaningful to me: “The Understory,” which caused a time warp in my brain back to my university days at Berkeley."

Profile Image for Bruce.
Author 1 book21 followers
October 31, 2013
This is a great book. I especially recommend it to my friends from Wallace-l, the listserve dedicated to the writings and life of David Foster Wallace. The author has a style that is not unlike that of DFW and Evan Dara: a high literary style, wrapped in a layer of comfortableness, producing the literary equivalent of a pharmacologically-induced high.

The stories in this collection are all *highly* imaginative. Often the author, Tim Horvath, takes you into a "realification" of a metaphysical concept. For example, one story takes the metaphysical concept of Plato's shadows and builds a reality in which the protagonist studies shadows to an extent and in ways that stagger the imagination. There are also several stories in which this trope is reversed: the real is converted to a metaphysical equivalent.

Many of the stories touch on some aspect of communication. The author has put a lot of deep thought into this subject.

There is also a theme of "the understory" throughout, driving home that there are many understories and that they can be more insightful/interesting/impactful than the "overstories" we wind up talking about. The story that most drives this home is one set in the timeframe of Hitler's ascension and demise, with the protagonists being a couple of German professors, one of which is Heidegger. I'll not give away the plot, but the long and short is that their understory, and the understory of evolutionary change in the ecology of a town in New England, are stories worth knowing.

The take-away for me is that we are all so busy paying attention to everything that we do not pay attention to anything.

This is a theme that Dave Wallace addressed as well, and is another reason I recommend this book to Wallaceans.

To think that I almost didn't read this book. The author and I somehow friended each other on Goodreads, and I decided to snoop his page to learn more about him. I found out that he is an author, hit the Amazon link for one of his books, and was going to add it to my wish list, but instead hit the Purchase With One Click link. iPads are great, but one really does have to pay attention in using them. Duh.

Fortunately, though, I quickly got into the book and really enjoyed it. I started out thinking I might take a few of his neat sentences/expressions and steal them for a collection of stories I'm putting together. But, the number of those sentences/expressions got to be so large that I had to abandon that. I'm now working on a way to code the entire book into my DNA, so that, when I do reincarnate as a real writer, I'll have the text and can steal it *all* and still be able to legally claim that I did not plagiarize.
Profile Image for Kyle Muntz.
Author 7 books114 followers
October 28, 2012
I've been having really good luck with collections recently--this is one I wanted to read when it came out, but since I'm usually more interested in novels, I made the mistake of putting it until now. More than anything, I think, Horvath is a master of the novella form: Ciculation (a story about books, family, the origin of things, and... caves), The Discipline of Shadows (focusing on Umbrology, the study of shadows), and The City in the Light of the Moths (a meditation on film; projection; illusion), are all some of the best novellas I've read in a long time. Horvath's fiction exists somewhere on the edge of magical realism and the world of ideas, written in rich, full prose that somehow maintains a strong realist sensibility. On the other hand, the shorter work tended to be more blatantly surreal, but also somehow empty in comparison, as if they were the sketches of longer stories Horvath had decided to abandon. Still, in the end, the collection was extremely strong--it would be worth checking out just for Circulation, but almost half of the book is made up of pieces just as good, maybe better. Horvath creates a conceptual space where a fixation on the tangible (books, trees, shadows) somehow becomes so profound the object of examination is transformed, to become inscrutable and timeless. There are resembles to Borges and Calvino as the blurbs pointed out, but there's a lot more here as well, especially with the sense of human emotion/fullness that Horvath brings to the whole collection, and at his best, I think it would be difficult to find better writing pretty much anywhere.
Profile Image for Robert Wechsler.
Author 11 books125 followers
August 26, 2013
This collection is a true delight. It’s fresh, varied, and intelligent, and the author’s ear is perfect throughout. And what an imagination!

Horvath also has a great sense of proportion. That is, he knows how long, and short, to make his stories. His showier and more experimental stories are short. His long stories are formally more conservative, but they are winning not only because they are so well-written, but also because the author replaces the clever quirkiness that mars so many young authors’ stories with a calmer, deeper quirkiness that often involves what the protagonist does for a living.

One of Horvath’s special talents is his way of doing transitions. He often doesn’t bother with them, jumping or hopping instead. And it works.

The only criticism I can make of this collection is the selection of the first story. Far from typical (more a humor piece than a story), it gives a false impression of the collection. It may put off older readers like me. This is a collection for any age.

I tend to read a couple of stories between novels, rather than reading a story collection all the way through. I couldn’t put this one down, because I enjoyed the writing, the variety, the storytelling, and the author’s intelligence and good judgment. Good judgment may be the most underrated quality in a writer. It is especially important in the writing of short stories.
Profile Image for Karen.
65 reviews
December 16, 2014
This is a fantastic book. I really can't emphasize that enough. I devoured it, wanting to read faster and faster but forcing myself to slow down in order to properly appreciate every word. The way Horvath plays with language is absolutely amazing--sentence after sentence, he'll make you want to sit back and take five minutes to think about what you just read. With each new story there's a new narrative style. And what stories! Cities of restaurants, endangered languages as lovers or children, rubbery and undulating cities, cities of films and projectionists, intrepid stargazers, children's playlands...each story introduces you to an entirely new world, ranging from perfectly in place with ours to almost outside the believable. In short, read this book; you won't regret it.
Profile Image for Alan.
Author 11 books160 followers
May 12, 2020
Blimey Horvath is good, maybe too good, by which I mean that the book seems overstuffed and should be two books. The longer, more conventional pieces are clever, layered and many - particularly the Shadows one - echo Nabokov (they are that good) with their academic, categorising backgrounds: a librarian, a cataloguer, a professor of shadows, a philosopher at a German University before WW2. The shorter pieces these are interleaved with are more sci-fi, imaginary communities (one a ghost town, in another everyone only has one sense etc.) and they too are good, but I felt they belonged to a different book. Is that a valid criticism - that a book is so good it should be two books? Anyway I was impressed by the writing, truly terrific, but a bit exhausted by the thing as a whole.
Profile Image for Edward Rathke.
Author 10 books127 followers
February 5, 2014
It took me weirdly long to finish this, not because it was bad or unenjoyable, but because that's how life is sometimes.

These are amazing stories. Every single one. One of my favorite things about the collection is the length of the stories, which probably sounds odd. But in this day of digital distribution and online reading, it seems that stories become shorter and shorter, and long stories are relegated to the unread or unwanted pile. Horvath manages to prove how great a story with real length and substance can be.

My interview with Tim at Monkeybicycle.
Profile Image for David.
Author 12 books136 followers
January 17, 2013
I love these stories. The imagination is incredible, but they don't rest on incredible imagination. They would be touching and captivating stories even if events like Gauguin spending his career in Greenland instead of Tahiti didn't happen, but the bizarre imagination makes them even more enjoyable. This is my first experience with Horvath, but I'm hooked.
Profile Image for Mark.
1,373 reviews104 followers
July 12, 2022
Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I would stick with this story collection out, after the first 2 stories but I am glad I did. Several of them were incredible. What an incredibly deep and cerebral set of tales. Certainly not for every one but if you like challenging and rewarding stories, give this one a try.
Profile Image for Gabriel.
Author 14 books129 followers
June 8, 2012
"The projectionist's nightmare: He is not in the booth. Well then, the booth—who's manning it? The film running, the booth empty. Where is he? Mired in vague dream coordinates. And the film is hurtling toward its end, which he senses, viscerally as you might intuit the imminent death of a loved one many miles distant. Shit, shit. Running and running, he can't get there, anywhere. The booth stays empty."

Perhaps the projectionist's nightmare, but not this book's. If anything, Understories is the daydream riposte to this nightmare—so many of its characters find themselves wrapped up in their stories, thoroughly in service to them, "mired" not in "vague" dream coordinates, but very specific ones. These booths are filled, the projectionists even more engrossed than their audiences, also on the edges of their seats. Which might seem like a back-handed compliment—it's not; it keeps these stories focused on their characters, keeps them from being removed, stories about stories, infinite (e.g., distanced) regressions. Otherwise apt jacket comparisons to Borges and Calvino may mislead the casual bookstore browser: even those who might not make much of metafiction will still find much to make much of here.
Profile Image for Michael.
218 reviews44 followers
November 16, 2014
In this collection of mostly previously published short fiction, Horvath has created a loose matrix of urban experience narratives (with a few real outliers) that range from the realistic to the wildly speculative. Uneven in quality but richly rewarding on the whole, Understories is sometimes overly eager but never dull. The author clearly knows his way around a sentence, and his mastery of the art of writing creates both flashes of brilliance and touches of hubris. Witty, satirical, humorous, inventive, insightful tales written with a fluidity that bears the reader along like a crowd on a busy urban street occasionally allow the artifice to appear through the art. This is perhaps a danger inherent in fiction written by those whose day jobs involve the teaching of creative writing (as is the case with Horvath). Nevertheless, the benefits far outweigh the problems in this fine collection, and I find myself rereading favorites just to enjoy the flow of the well-written prose and to marvel at the inventive powers of an unfettered mind at play.
Profile Image for Ravi.
Author 7 books48 followers
December 18, 2012
Hands down my favorite collection of 2012. Can't recommend this book enough.
Profile Image for Julia Fierro.
Author 4 books312 followers
October 21, 2013
A wonderful collection (more specific review to come)! I'm excited to read more by this author.
Profile Image for Melanie Page.
Author 4 books84 followers
May 25, 2018
Time Horvath’s Understories reminds me of the complexity found in books released by publishers such as FC2 and Dalkey Archive Press. Those 256 pages are stuffed with ideas and contains little dialogue!--it actually took me longer to read that I thought it would. The collection has eight short stories connected as “Urban Planning Case Studies” and a slew of other tales of theories--about shadows, dying languages, trees, boxes--using unconventional links in storytelling to pull all these ideas into a challenging tapestry pattern.

Horvath enters the back door of fiction, taking objects as the center of the story and using them to get into human relationships. Examining a man carrying a box becomes a bit of a mystery to an onlooker who claims to care about what’s in the box. But does he REALLY care? How does one know what one truly cares about and when one is merely curious? The desire to know more leads to action, and Horvath’s dry humor comes through the pages: “The man carrying the box kept going, his trajectory not unlike that of a rickshaw operator with dementia. I followed a half step behind, like a piece of toilet paper stuck to his foot.”

In the piece “The Understory,” Heidegger makes an appearance as colleague and friend to a Jewish professor named Schoner, who specializes in trees. When Heidegger is named rector of Freiburg University, Schoner is one of the first let go. Moving to America to escape Nazis, Schoner appreciates the trees that grow on his property, and especially the vegetation in the understory that receives little light. After 50 years, the plant life becomes a symbol of resilient Jews who survived and lived post Holocaust, which Horath has pulled seamlessly through the story. Schoner looks at his forest and will not be “able to articulate how this plot preserves [Jews left behind in Germany], how in it they preserve themselves, having risen up from the leveled earth like resurrected beings from the fallen heaps and mounds, rise in every conceivable way as none other than themselves.” I was surprised and touched when the story focused so intently on trees and used those objects to travel into heartbreak, not only for lives lost in WWII, but because Schoner lost his friend, his job, and his students who believe Nazi propaganda.

Tim Horvath makes writing complex literature look easy. His style speaks of experience, and there is a clear distinction between this writer and those who are much newer (dare I suggest a divide between those who do and do not come out of MFA programs?).
1,522 reviews47 followers
September 29, 2012
I've been hearing about this book off and on all summer, finally enough times that I was moved to read it, and I was really glad I did. Horvath writers a kind of cerebral fiction, where the characters often are academics, and more often than that, talk like they are-- the stories are often delivered in this kind of hyper-thoughtful language that verges on the bureaucratic but doesn't quite get there; it's the language of scientific reports, odd foreign dispatches, the late life memoirs of well-regarded historians. I can almost see some people finding that a little hard to get through, but as an academic myself, I found it very familiar territory, and funny, and compelling, confident that these voices would, like a good academic, ask the right questions and arrive at the right places in their inquiries into what is a decidely strange world. Or make that worlds.

The book is arranged into a collection of sections, where each is headed up by a report on a new city, and then a couple stories follow. When I started reading the about the cities-- one filled with restuarants, but now without food to cook, another all cinemas, one where everything undulates beneath your feet-- I thought of Invisible Cities, Calvino's book of imaginary places, but these stories are more narrative than Calvino's were, if I remember them right; there are people who live in these places, and they run up against the challenges such places present. If Calvino's cities are imaginary gardens, Horvath puts real narrative toads in his.

The stories that fill out the rest of the book are varied and strange; there are long, quasi-realist stories like the title story or the sort of structured-by-metaphor story "Circulation." There are other short elliptical pieces like "Pocket," and ones like "Tillkez" that is Borgesian, another figure like Calvino who haunts this book. Really, though, all the stories to me held beauties and surprises. A very good, and very long, book of stories, with lots to read and consider.
Profile Image for Jennifer Spiegel.
Author 10 books83 followers
July 2, 2012
I just spent some great time reading Tim Horvath's collection, UNDERSTORIES. I haven't done one of my entirely unorthodox book review-thingies on my blog in a while, and I wish I had the time to devote myself to convincing you to give this one your full attention.

So, here's a moment. Allow me to emphasize that it needs attention. I needed to read it carefully, attentively. First, Horvath knows how to write one kick-arse sentence after another. These are sentences to read aloud, to get the feeling of them rolling off your tongue; they're complicated but well-executed from beginning to end. That's just his sentence structure. Second, and I think everyone is saying this, the stories are so imaginative/inventive/fantastical/dystopian, etc. The city with films projected everywhere got me the most, until I read about how people inexplicably blew up into smithereens during tense conversations, with only a trace of mint in the air suggesting impending violence. Wow. Third, Horvath's prose is smart. I like smart fiction. I'm just impressed by philosophical astuteness in fiction. Fourth, if I were teaching my dream one-year-long fiction seminar, I'd like to end with Matt Bell's first book, and this one. I don't write like this at all. I don't do this stuff, but I know this: it's important. It speaks of the role of fiction, the development of literature. There. Get this book.
Profile Image for Jaclyn Michelle.
74 reviews12 followers
January 26, 2013

"It was the comfort of your tongue tripping on your own sweat, a friendly reminder that of the world's salt, a share is yours." (p. 14, Circulation)

The back jacket copy is what compelled me to request Tim Horvath's Understories from the May Early Reviewers batch on LibraryThing: "What if there were a city that consisted only of restaurants? What if Paul Gauguin had gone to Greenland instead of Tahiti? What if there were a field called Umbrology, the study of shadows, where physicists and shadow puppeteers worked side by side. Full of speculative daring though firmly anchored in the tradition of realism, Tim Horvath's stories explore all of this and more, blending the everyday and wondrous to contend with age-old themes of loss, identity, imagination, and the search for human connection. Whether making offhand references to Mystery Science Theater, providing a new perspective on Heidegger's philosophy and forays into Nazism, or following the imaginary travels of a library book, Horvath's writing is as entertaining as it is thought provoking."

As a collection, Understories was a bit uneven. Not all of the stories seemed like they belonged in the same book. That said, there were more than a few that really stood out to me as really quite good:

Runaroundandscreamalot By far, my favorite story in the book, but also the story that felt the most misplaced. The action follows a divorced father as he takes his daughter, Sasha, to a local indoor playground and the relationship that develops between himself and the mother of a child named Hahn. Really tight with strong, compelling characters...I just really bought into this slice of the characters' lives he allows us to peek in on.
Altered Native This piece ponders what would have happened if Gauguin found his inspiration in icy Greenland, as opposed to tropical Tahiti. Particularly deliciously crafted for the reader who knows a bit about Gauguin's Tahiti experiences...
The Conversations Spontaneous combustion sporadically occurs across the globe during specific types of discussion, and Horvath explores what happens when we worry as much about what we shouldn't talk about as what we're trying to communicate.
Urban Planning: Case Study Number Seven A City in the Light of Moths Horvath imagines a world where film is shown 24 hours a day on every available square inch of surface, and his world building and description in this piece is exceptionally strong.
The Understory Heidegger. A Jewish arborist. An unlikely friendship. Nazis and philosophy and trees. Horvath's result is nuanced and balanced.

In between many of the stories were short pieces entitled Urban Planning, created I imagine to weave the stories together into a cohesive collection. A couple of these, particularly Case Study Number Six and Case Study Number Eight, were delightfully strange taut little mini-stories and would have worked out of the context of the greater collection as well.

Horvath's strength is absolutely concept: he imagines places and scenarios, and "what ifs" himself into the most interesting premises. To be a fly on the wall in that man's imagination...which also sounds like a plausible premise for one of Horvath's stories...

One thing I did notice is that Horvath does have a tendency to use several words where one would suffice, so if economy of word is your thing, he might not be the right writer for you to explore.

Rubric ruling: 7

I have no idea why, but my reading has tended toward the dystopian/surreal/ speculative/downright bizarre lately. Just wait until I share with you my thoughts on Blake Butler's There Is No Year... I'm beginning to have some really strange dreams, and I absolutely blame Butler...I think it might be time to crack into Anna Karenina and The Dud Avocado!
Profile Image for Clark Knowles.
339 reviews13 followers
May 15, 2014
A fantastic book. This book is often compared to Borges and Calvino, and certainly those comparisons are apt, but Tim really has his own thing happening here--some middle passage between total immersion into the fantastical and good old fashioned attention to the grounding concrete details of the real. The longer stories blend elements of science and history (both real and imagined) into stories of longing and regret ("Planetarium" is my favorite, great last paragraph) and many of the shorter stories guide the reader through a series of wonderfully (un)believable cities. Weaving these two poles together, Tim Horvath allows his readers to make a whole bunch of beautiful connections between what is real and what might be real. Ultimately, it's difficult to tell which is which. I don't think there is any other fiction writer working now who is doing anything like this with anywhere near Tim's clarity of vision. Very, very sharp prose all the way through. Do I have to mention that I know Tim for some reason? Well, I do, and he's an awesome human being, but that shouldn't matter for this review. Go read now.
519 reviews3 followers
January 30, 2020
Pop Sugar 2020 Reading challenge-a book with an upside down image on the cover.

This book has some funny stuff and some weird stuff. The weird generally overwhelms the funny. The introduction is hilarious so I had higher hopes for the rest of the book.
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