Reviewed by Tom DeBeauchamp
You enter Understories through "Lobby," a short monologue in which a tour guide describes a place so fantastic that not only can you not photograph it, you aren't allowed even to remember it once you leave. The rules are the same for your guide. When the tour is over, he sends you back to your:
existence as pedestrian, free to merge into the anonymous tumult of human transit, speaking nil of what you've seen today, abiding no scar of it in the retention orifices of your mind, for to recall it thusly will entail your having become part of the lobby; hence, according to the provisions set forth above, prohibited from speaking of oneself, crippled, I tell you, as one who must fall silent and expressionless each time I walk through those heart-rendingly simple doors.
The gesture ("Those, there") is to the world outside the building, outside the beauty of the lobby, but also further into the book. To turn the page is to enter another story, another scene, another world, where—at least legally—nothing you've experienced in this one can have any effect. Call it instructions for reading. Though the terrain shifts from page to page, and the logic isn't always the same, Horvath's collection reminds you that even if he does manage not to remember the lobby when not working, the tour guide remembers his not remembering. Something of the lobby stays with him no matter how significant the shifts in his environment.
Like "Lobby," "The Understory," begins at a threshold. Here, memory is everything though its expression is impossible. Schöner, once a Professor of Botanical Sciences and colleague of Martin Heidegger's, now an old man propped on a walker, stares out into his New Hampshire forest. "From here, he can almost enter in memory. Every inch of the plot is stored somewhere in his brain." Actually walking out into the undergrowth is impossible for him, given the walker. If only some basic maintenance were done, a few trails cut, insists his family, he could go down to the lake again. Impossible. Coded into the forest's dense undergrowth is the very essence of his life, its story and that of the friends and family he's lost. As a young man, teaching in Germany, he forced his students to climb trees, the better "to see what is truly in the canopy." With the rise of National Socialism, however, he fell from Privatdozent in Freiburg, to gardener in New York. From that fall he rebuilt himself in the very forest he looks out on, only it's a different forest now. As with the Schwarzwald, his trees had been huge and hundreds of years old; as with his old life, they were laid low by a freak sort of hurricane. In a letter to Heidegger years after the war he writes:
You know, Martin, it's strange. Trees have always defined the forest for me. I climbed in the canopy, because I thought that's where the best, truest view was. But in the wake of the Storm of 1938, I find that the little plants of the understory have become very dear to me, dearer than I could have ever imagined.
The story ends where it begins, with Schöner standing at the forest edge waiting for his daughter's Subaru to pull up the long drive. Despite all he's remembered of his past, of his "parents, friends, uncles, aunts, students, teachers" he is still unable "to articulate how this plot preserves them, how in it they preserve themselves, having risen up from the leveled earth like resurrected beings from the fallen heaps and mounds, risen in every conceivable way as none other than themselves." The forest is a mirror to his life. It shares his memories, and gives them a spatial quality. When he visits the forest, he visits his past. It is as Gavin Walters, the bufo-toad sucking Substantive Phenomenologist of "The Conversations" says, "kismet was no less tangible than kumquats."
As parts in the larger whole, the tangible and intangible are equals in Understories. One of the collection's shortest pieces, "Pockets," offers perhaps the best framework for understanding this part-whole relationship. "Oh, his pocket," the narrator says of his father's obsession with pockets. "Plural: Pocket. Not pockets. Pocket—like deer, like moose. His coinage. I can hear him rage still at those times when, still young, we threw an s onto the end; I can see his flaring hair and contorted features dappled with benday dots like a comic-book villain as he came after us." The father—at least, grammatically—convinced of the oneness of all pocket, both real pockets and the "Home of Future Pocket," builds and builds new pockets:
Unceremonious groundbreaking followed by new pocket springing up like housing, whole subdivisions eventually, Pockettown, the continual fractionation of slottable space, eat your heart out Zeno. Infinite places where things could be lost and found, places where things could stay hidden and accrue scruff, fuzz, and legend, places where things could fester, mold, and potentially molt, places a person could go lost for years.
These pockets together, whether presented as real or imagined, resonate with each other to make a labyrinth greater than the sum of its fabric. Understories resonates in the same way. Where another collection might try to harness its resonances by amplifying some common element across its various stories, by highlighting a common real-world topic or implicating all its characters in one super-narrative, Understories sprinkles its connections thematically throughout. It's as if, in its molting places, as disconnected from one another as the lobby is from the bus stop, an echo has been sounded. The Professor of Umbrology in "The Discipline of Shadows" echoes Schöner at the dissolution of his department. The narrator's father in "Circulation" with his impossible project, The Atlas of the Voyage of Things, echoes the crazy inventor and father of "Runaroundandscreamalot!"s narrator. Even the shape of the stories is a kind of echo, with each starting at some threshold and turning quickly into something else: by its end, "Circulation"s Atlas becomes Spelos: an Ode to Caves; "The Gendarmes" goes from a game of roof-baseball to the science of extinction.
Every echo, despite its resonance, is a kind of individual pocket. The book as a whole is a pocket. Each of the stories is another. Schöner staring into his forest is a pocket as surely as his past is contained in pockets. The various cities of the "Urban Planning" series are pockets too. Delagotha, for example, where "five senses was madness," and "they'd learned to burrow into a single sense at a time," is a pocket of pockets. Pockets within pockets within side-pockets forever: it's practically a map of literature, and it's certainly a map of Understories. Though we encounter the understory as one thing, Horvath delights us with its individual shrubs and flowers, roots and bugs. As a fiction collection, then, Understories resonates not only on the stories as stories, but as an arrangement of individual parts. The buzz it gives off is the combined buzz of countless pockets, all charged with a life and surprise of their own.