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Some Thoughts About Tim Horvath’s Understories

ImageA couple of weeks ago, Susannah Elisabeth Pabot asked me to introduce Tim Horvath before he read at Brown University’s Literary Arts Department’s Demitasse on March 21, 2012. Here, with some modifications, is what I’d said about Tim and his work:

The names Borges and Calvino are used on countless dustjackets, covers, press releases, and reviews, often to, at best, misleading effect, and at worst outright deception. Because of this, I was annoyed to discover Rebecca Makkai’s blurb on the back of Understories, Tim Horvath’s forthcoming debut collection of short fictions, where she references those selfsame names. (Yes, I’m one of those readers who do judge books, at least initially, by their covers.) After reading the first few fictions in Understories, though, I realized that referencing those two fabricators of fabulist fictions was not only thoroughly appropriate but only hinted at the book’s profound conversation with these two writers and their own heavily-mediated-while-still-gracefully-executed texts. You might say that Borges and Calvino are Horvath’s interlocutors, the three of them engaging in conversation (an important word and concept in Understories), across time and space, that is, the historical continuum, a place which is mainly textual, that is, occurring between language that happened before with language that is happening and with language that might happen later, that conversation extending backward from the texts of Borges and Calvino, two writers who engaged with their predecessors and contemporaries as well, writers who realized what T. S. Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” asserted was the prerogative of artists (I’m going to insert words as a corrective to Eliot’s highly gendered language):

No poet, no artist of any art, has his [or her] complete meaning alone. His [or her] significance, his [or her] appreciation is the appreciation of his [or her] relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him [or her] alone; you must set him [or her], for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he [or she] shall conform, that he [or she] shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.

Horvath’s Understories accomplishes the difficult task of introducing a series of novelties that in their way alter the texts that preceded them. It accomplishes this by juxtaposing what might be called an engagement with a peculiarly self-aware mimesis at a postmodern remove against the construction of what might be called “Immanent Cities,” and by “immanent,” I’m thinking of Deleuze’s definition of that space not only occurring within, but also upon or of that space, that is, the effect and affect of these fictions do not occur simply within itself but within a larger system of fictions, folding in and out and from that very same system, operating consistently upon it, with it, and through it, dynamically and kinetically mapping its topography as it extends the limits of that system. This juxtaposition brings me to another aspect of this multifaceted book. In Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a magnificently cerebral fiction, the narrator describes Tlön, a strange place with strange beliefs and customs, where even their books are “different.” The narrator goes on to say that in Tlön

Works of fiction contain a single plot, with all its imaginable permutations. Those of a philosophical nature invariably include both the thesis and the antithesis, the rigorous pro and con of a doctrine. A book which does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete.

Tim Horvath has taken that last sentence as a dictum for his collection, for Understories is a book that contains at least one counterbook. But first I should describe the book itself. And I think I’ll do that after first describing how I first came to discover Tim’s writing. I used to run an online review journal called the Chapbook Review, and in the summer of 2009 I was lucky to have found “Circulation” in a pile of chapbooks. In “Circulation,” Horvath imagines a librarian who imagines that books “choose their recipients as much as they are chosen,” that can, like wild animals, “camouflage themselves such that at times they blend in with their surroundings as readily as a tree frog, hugging the walls of the shelves around them, appearing less palatable than the plump bestseller they lean against.” A season after reading this poignant portrait of a librarian and his uncertain love for his father, I discovered Horvath’s “The Discipline of Shadows” in Conjunctions 53; it’s an incredibly imaginative story that largely takes place in a school’s department of “Umbrology,” that is, a place where shadows are given all the intellectual rigor of any academic discipline (Thomas Browne, who, according to W. G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn, “saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another world far beyond,” would certainly have been welcome at this university, where he could have lectured on King Solomon’s de Umbris Idæarum: a “treatise on the shadow cast by our thoughts.”). In the spring of 2010, I asked Horvath to contribute to my “Sentence About a Sentence I Love” series, to which he contributed a sentence about a sentence from Norman Rush’s Mating. I’m not sure where and when we finally met, but once we did, we were able to share our mutual love for writers like Alexander Theroux, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and many more. I also invited him to join the “Othership,” that is, Big Other, an online arts forum I edit. I’ve been lucky to have shared journal space with him in two consecutive issues of Conjunctions, my favorite literary journal. There I found “The City in the Light of Moths” and “Altered Native,” two thoroughly imaginative stories that I’m happy to say now also appear in Understories. I’m also honored to say that “The Lobby,” the story opening the collection, was one of several stories I solicited from Tim for jmww, where I used to be a senior editor.

Those stories are family to many of Understories’s other stories in what I’m thinking of the book’s book, not to be confused with the book’s counterbook, which I’ll get to later. Those fictions foreground conversation, conversations occurring primarily in that quagmire we call “human relationships,” but also conversations with other texts and writers; like “The Understory,” which imagines a botanist named Schöner, reminiscing about conversations he’d had with famed philosopher Martin Heidegger, but which also engages with Shakespeare and Hölderlin, and namechecks Goethe, Trakl, Schlegel, and Heine, among others; like “Planetarium,” which artfully navigates a story-length lie and a rivalry, imagined and otherwise; like “The Gendarmes,” which re-envisions America’s so-called national pastime; like “Runaroundandscreamalot,” a story as much about parenting and post-breakup-dating as it is a portrait of an inventor as a young man; like “The Conversations,” which besides literally foregrounding conversation, also, like other stories in Understories (I’m thinking of The Atlas in “Circulation”), imagines another book, namely, The Encyclopedia of Substantive Phenomenology.

But I haven’t come to the book’s counterbook. Here is where the connection to Borges and Calvino becomes clear. Within the interstices of this book’s juggling of mimesis with metaphysics is a collection of case studies of urban planning, which, like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, imagines a number of impossible cities, cities that can only exist in the mind, the imagination, or even better, on the page. While Calvino’s stories are very much aligned with a classic kind of folk storytelling, a kind of storytelling going at least as far back as Scheherazade, Horvath’s is a post-Benjaminian storyteller, one who recognizes that the “epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out,” which is

a concomitant symptom of the secular productive forces of history, a concomitant that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing.

Yes, the eight stories in Understories’s counterbook make it possible to see “a new beauty in what is vanishing.” And what enables that beauty is exemplified in the book’s command of language. Horvath is unafraid to make up new words. Here’s just a sample of the book’s coinages:

übermule, ultradubious, nonspewer, cineburbs, cinaddiction, nonhappening, sadlovely, horrormongers, anticinemite, nocturnocidal, roomsuit, mintgasm, wildcrafted, intratime, outgabbing, blahnguage.

As any great book, Understories confronts the making of fiction itself, intermittently directly confronting the mechanics of fabrication. There’s the moment, for instance, in “A Box of One’s Own,” a story I think of as a kind of parable of narratogological logics, the title itself a play on a book by Virginia Woolf, where a box, after being told a variation of the worn-out dictum to show and not tell, says:

“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.”

Understories is a major accomplishment by a major writer and friend, full of writing as deeply aware of its antecedents as it is aware of the possibilities within, of, and about narrative. So it is with great pleasure that I ask you to join me in welcoming Tim Horvath to our Demitasse.

About John Madera

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.
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5 thoughts on “Some Thoughts About Tim Horvath’s Understories

    1. Hey, Adam.

      I said the same thing to Tim when I’d first seen the cover. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but the cover elegantly intimates several things about the book itself, namely, its reveries on imagined cities, and, by dividing the surface into halves, its containing a book and counterbook, about which I talk more about above.

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