Hiking Underground by Amy Smiley

In Hiking Underground (Atmosphere Press, 203 pages), three urban naturalists explore the relationship between art and reality in episodic reveries about nature. Although the narratives ostensibly take place mostly in parks in Manhattan and Maine, the real action is in the minds of the characters as they explore the great outdoors and grow as artists and as individuals.

It worked, thematically, for me to think of the three main characters, Adam, Alice and Emma, as the same person at different stages of development. In the story, Adam is Emma’s six-year-old son; Alice is Emma’s student and Adam’s babysitter; Emma is a professional artist and a teacher. The book is divided into sections dedicated to each one of them in turn, although the focal point does visit different perspectives within each section. Adam’s sections are a portrait of the artist as a young child; Alice’s are of the artist as a student, whose emotional memories need resurrecting; Emma’s are of the consummate artist who is satisfied with her creations and begins the body of work that unites her past with her future.

This “review” is a bit unorthodox, since I am not summarizing the plot in order to help you decide whether to read the book or not. As a work of poetic narrative, Hiking Underground is impossible to paraphrase. Instead, I can try to interpret the patterns in the novel. I’m writing more for those who have already read the book and will enjoy relishing the details of Smiley’s craft.

The omniscient narrator explicitly notes how much the different perspectives overlap. For example, Alice “could get inside the way the child [Adam] saw the world as it felt so much like her own….” Nostalgic for her own childhood, Emma encourages Adam’s obsession with myth, even though it may make “it harder for him to grown up.” Emma can sometimes view the world through extended metaphors straight out of Adam’s children’s fantasy literature. Looking out her living room window, Emma marvels at the Empire State Building,

“It was always something in the distance, unattainable, majestic, and a bit foreboding, its crown topped with an impossibly sharp needle as if about to pierce the invisible sac that held the heavens. Someday all the gods would come tumbling out, and how surprised she would be to have assumed she lived in a world of indifference.”

We are told that the child and the teenager are still active in the adult Emma:

“Emma felt the child within herself peering out onto the world, and her teenage self still throbbing in her skin. This was part of the reason she liked being a mother; she could be these younger selves that had not gone away.”

As an artist, Emma has preserved the teenager’s “fierce emotion” and the child’s wonder of nature. In one scene in Central Park, Emma, caught in a rainstorm and muddy, reenacts a mythic scene of a nymph bathing in sacred ponds. The child’s obsession with myth continues in the adult such that it still frames her perceptions. Emma is Adam grown up, but still a child.

Indeed, to some extent, the end point of the story seems to be the convergence of these perspectives into Emma, who, it turns out, is the true focal character by the end of the novel, an assertion I make based on the fact that her new body of work is called, Hiking Underground. While reading, I noted that Emma’s understanding of the other two characters sometimes verged upon omniscience. Emma understood “the things that [Adam] had trouble telling anybody else. She even knew before he told her—sometimes before he even knew himself—that he was thinking about something.”

If the story is eschewing the conventions of time and individuality in the way I’m suggesting, then that might account partly for the surreal tone throughout. The characters also project sentience on the objects around them; everything is alive and feels; their empathy makes the descriptions of the woods, the streams, and the earth surreal. An old elm tree in Washington Square Park is “steadfast behind the authority of the metal fence” and lampposts are “cast iron fireflies.” Adam is especially given to projecting his feeling onto the world and at one point wonders, “How could they leave a soda can all alone in the gutter?” Here it may be relevant to note that in her early career, Smiley wrote a full-length study on surrealist poet Louis Aragon.

One of the techniques I most appreciated was Smiley’s method for showing the interiority of the characters. As scenes are described, the narrator articulates the character’s subconscious perceptions of the external world and verbalizes the character’s distant memories or associated feelings that hang, subconsciously, on to the perceptions. It is a type of stream of consciousness expressed, through the omniscient narrator, in complete sentences, providing the full context, so that the reader is not left wondering about idiosyncratic references. There is a fullness to all the descriptions and reflections that is very unusual.

Although the narrative does not depend upon a traditional sense of a plot, toward the end, the reader feels a sense of pending resolutions to some questions. Adam learns to overcome fears founded in imaginary worlds. Alice finds the idea job, wandering through the mountains of California with a naturalist, illustrating while he writes. With Emma’s love of hiking a key focus of the story, that job could well have been in her past. Emma starts a new type of artistic exploration, painting things below the surface using soil, forming her “earth narrative,” which has “something to do with spring” and resurrection of plants and insects (and Alice’s memories) from their slumber.

When Emma starts mixing soil with binders to use as paint, it is a radical departure for her because she had always work in pencil.

“…using mud instead of pencil lent her work an altogether different materiality. And that made her uneasy. There had always been this foundation boundary, faint at times but always palpable, between art and nature….painting with actual mud felt like an intrusion; it was too close to the thing itself, creating an intimacy that made her a little nauseated, as if she were bringing a plodding heaviness of raw reality into a handmade world.”

The novel ends on magical realism moment when Adam thinks he sees Alice in a tree, a scene he did not witness and could not have known happened. Earlier in the novel, Emma has opined that from her point of view,

“there was nothing wrong with magical thinking, especially if it could help children feel powerful. While she no longer believed in fairies, she remained attuned to a kind of hidden life, or a presence, that emanated from objects or that infused the atmosphere; things seemed to brim more thickly for her, or made her quiver with this secreted tinge of another life form.…she drew and search for it in her drawings.”

As a study in empathy, Hiking Underground delivers. Smiley keeps the reader rapt in anticipation, waiting not for some plot conflict resolution, but for the different variations on the novel’s theme to converge, which they do, with delightful intricacy. Smiley writes for artists.”

V. N. Alexander, author of Locus Amoenus, 2015

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