May 12, 2016: “The Understory” by Tim Horvath

Hello, Story366! So good to be writing here. Today, I had a very positive experience, as I went to a hooding ceremony for some graduate students. If you haven’t been to a hooding ceremony, it’s where graduate students gather together, choosing faculty mentors to represent them, and those mentors stand behind them and drop their graduate regalia over their heads and around their neck while everyone watches and takes pictures. Regalia is a scarf-type thing that wraps around the neck in the front and droops down the back, almost all the way. The key thing about regalia is the colors, as they’re mostly black, but have accent colors to denote degree and institution. Since I have an MFA from Bowling Green, my regalia has a brown swatch—for the MFA—and brown and orange swatches—Bowling Green’s colors. This means a really bright regaliaphile could identify, just by looking at a regaled person, what degree they have and where they went, sort of like a vexillologist can identify everyone at a U.N. meeting by their country’s flag or a Game of Thrones nerd can look at any sigil and know exactly from which house they hail.

In any case, it’s an honor for a student to ask you to hood them, so since two grad students asked me, I’m feeling pretty special today. Congrats to them and all grads, and congrats to me for hanging my cap, gown, and regalia back in my closet so I know where it’ll be next year.

I’m also pretty stoked to have found today’s story, “The Understory” by Tim Horvath. This is kind of the title story from his excellent collection Understories, out from Bellevue Literary Press. “The Understory” is a really great story, one of my new favorites, and I’ll tell you about it now.

“The Understory” starts with Schöner, whose name, pronounced in the proper German, is probably “Skernair” or “Shaner” or something else that sounds out letters that aren’t there (which makes it fun to try to say when it’s in the story like four hundred times). Anyway, Schöner is an old man at the start of the story, awaiting a visit from his daughter and her husband, knowing they’re going to try to talk him into selling off the mini-forest that’s behind his house, where’s he’s lived for fifty years. Developers want to build there, loggers want the wood, and his daughter will start by asking for  a trail from the house to the lake, so they can take walks together, which Schöner doesn’t want, either. He wants the forest intact while he’s alive, doesn’t want to cut a single branch from a single tree. But why?

Horvath tells us via a lengthy backstory passage, making “The Understory” a frame story (and explaining the title, at least physically). We go back all the way to 1930, where Schöner is a young dendrologist, awarded a prestigious post at the university in Freiburg, out in the German sticks. Schöner is ecstatic as it’s a big city on the edge of big woods and he can take his students out to the woods every day for class, which he does. There, they look at trees, feel trees, and best of all, they climb trees, as that’s the best way for them to see the canopy of the forest. Schöner couldn’t be happier, and for a while, he’s the university’s star.

That is until a noteworthy professor by the name of Martin Heidegger is hired by the university and is the new star. Schöner is impressed instead of jealous—Heidegger is not a construct, but the Heidegger—and through a coincidence, the two men become friends, Schöner taking Heidegger on frequent walks through the woods, showing him what he knows about trees, while Heidegger philosophizes to (and confuses) Schöner.

Of course, if you’re paying attention, this is 1930s Germany and Schöner is a Jewish name, meaning things aren’t going to go on like they’ve been going on for very much longer. It starts with the Nazis taking over in Berlin in Munich, politically, then quickly progresses to students carving swastikas in Schöner’s beloved trees. Schöner, we know, survives this takeover—it’s frame story, remember—getting out Germany early, but not before he sees his good friend Heidegger appointed to a liason post in the university by the powers that be; Heidegger is the Nazi P.R. guy on campus, and the two have one stilted conversation before Schöner escapes to New York and takes work as a gardener.

And that’s as far as I’ll go in terms of the plot. As you can guess, the frame wraps around and we get back to old Schöner and his giant backyard forest. In a way, Horvath could have explained why Schöner doesn’t want to cut or sell his woods by simply stating “he’s a tree scientist,” eliminating the hunk of backstory in the middle. But of course, it’s more complicated than that—plus we get the awesome story of him and Heidegger trotting through the woods—those trees meaning a lot more to Schöner at this point than being scientific wonders or things to study and write papers on. The trees are crucial, and you’ll have to read this fantastic story to find out what.

But yeah, this story’s loaded. A frame! Tree scientists! Heidegger as a character! Nazis! Crazy professor-types! This story has it all. And I made my Game of Thrones sigil:


And I got to use “vexillologist” and “dendrologist” in a post—in the same post!

I like all the stories I’ve read in Understories, most of which are really, really different than “The Understory.” One thread that Horvath weaves through the book, in an every-other pattern, are his “Urban Planning: Case Studies,” these shorts that send a researcher to a different fake (as in Horvath made them up) civilization to take note of a local custom or oddity, such as the first case study, which examines the city of Morrisania, which has developed a very intricate and sci-fi way of making sure its citizens never get rained on. These case studies remind me of Vonnegut, or maybe Kevin Brockmeier, while “The Understory” doesn’t remind me of either of those, not at all. It’s an eclectic book that Tim Horvath has written, and I absolutely love it. Highly recommend.