Underachieving as Art: The Rumpus Interview With Benjamin Anastas

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Follow the curve, as it goes down… down… down…

Such is the tone of Benjamin Anastas’ An Underachiever’s Diary, just recently reissued as a Dial Press Trade Paperback and concurrently billed as the “the funniest, most underappreciated book of the 1990s.” Now, so as to promote the book’s republication, Anastas has launched a new website, www.thedownturnisme.com, spreading the word of a life eschewing any drive for achievement.

Blatantly shunning all of the bullish intentions of ambition, the aim of this website is to bring together those who share a vision of absolutely nothing in particular. Anastas has traveled New York City — and soon, perhaps, the country and the globe — with eager participants seemingly coming out of the woodwork, who, through every personal and ergonomic downturn all blithely embrace the undercurrent of life (much as we all must live it). The site hopes to become a testament to slackerdom, an online photo album of mildly complacent ne’er-do-wells adorning themselves with a steel and powder-coated cursive blue “U,” taken as an emblem from the cover design for this publication.

This slim, floating novel tells the story of William, a layabout and devout underachiever who takes on a pride of ownership cum authorship in his utmost lack of direction in life. A modest tome, An Underachiever’s Diary sets out to be something of a manifesto; but without much motivation — if going so far as to attempt to theorize what it’s like to be “[a]lone in an age of increasing competition and diminished possibilities” — the author leans toward letting the volume act as “part diary and part handbook for self-defeat.”

“The book started life as a short story,” Anastas told The Rumpus, “and never got much larger than that.” With deliberate echoes of Nabokov, he says, the tone of the novel is a “consciously fluid and elastic narrative.” William is Anastas’ agonist (if neither ‘protagonist’ nor ‘antagonist’ seem to fit; he’s sort of both, or neither), who enters the world “feetfirst” seven minutes ahead of his twin brother Clive, who William sees as his “image in a better mirror.” The older sib of a child of promise, William is only all the more aware of how Clive, from the moment of their dual conception, excels in every way that William fails.

Throughout his account, William delineates the necessary means (for a necessary means) for an existence coasting along the curve of life, but with such a pride of purpose so as to call it his own. He endures always in the shadow of his younger twin, as the elder matures (if you can call it that) into an “adulthood” of perpetually self-inflicted downswing that doesn’t seem to bother him in the slightest — well, at least not too much so as to alter the course of his life. Yet there is a touch of sweetness to this perhaps otherwise unsympathetic character, as William notes early on how Clive was “the only thing, living or inanimate, that didn’t scare me,” as the two evolve from crawling infants into walking life.

“The older I get, the novel becomes more autobiographical,” Anastas said. Underachiever was first published ten years ago, and its follow-up, The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance, came two years later. But, as William wistfully points out midway through the novel, “Life can be cruel to poets.” And since then, Anastas has not published another book — there was (is) a third novel, which Anastas describes as being “completely strange and unresolved,” but which has heretofore only been published in Europe in a German translation (the response from publishers here being that the “book isn’t finished yet”).

The reissue of Underachiever is coming along now at a more receptive time than when first published, the author says. “Everyone these days is an underachiever… times are grim” — and he further concedes how pretty much everyone he knows has “hit a brick wall” in their lives. Such is life.

Anastas fielded a few questions from The Rumpus, for which he provided some answers about the book, his life, and his new website.

The Rumpus: How did you first conceive the book?

Benjamin Anastas: I wrote An Underachiever’s Diary at a time when it seemed like everyone was confessing some dark secret about themselves in print for fame and profit, and just assuming that readers were supposed to care. There were so many recovery memoirs around, I started to wonder if the real addiction wasn’t toward the notion that we are all perfectible and that life is something we can learn to master if we can just package our trauma in the right way. So I set out to write a story about a character who deliberately fails at everything in life and doesn’t care if you care — he invents his trauma. William cares enough to relate his story in the high-style of Nabokov, but even that’s a symptom of his urge to fail. It’s more art than his story merits.

Of course, I was in my twenties then. Railing against something seemed like a legitimate way of being a writer (although now I am not so sure). Without stories of ‘having been to hell and back,’ what is literature? At the time, I was almost literally drunk on the Russians, who I was reading for the first time — they were always ranting in their novels about some literary or philosophical movement that they couldn’t abide. Blame Notes from Underground.

Rumpus: Who is William? Is he a mirror of you? A composite of other things or people? (Or maybe a composite of absolutely nothing in particular?)

Anastas: I gave William some of my experiences and set the story in a place I knew very well — Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the seventies and eighties. To me he was primarily just a voice at first — a way of seeing the world, rather than someone [of substance]. I lived in a room on the South Side of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when I wrote the book — this was before the condo towers and European stroller showrooms — and I was feeling very much like I had already failed at life. I slept on a mattress on the floor that my girlfriend (who was Italian) called “la cuccia del cane” — the dog’s bed. I had a job I hated [and] wanted to tune the feeling I had that I was missing the boat into something small, sad, futile, mock-heroic. One day in my room, I heard William’s voice. So I wrote it down.

The Rumpus: How did you arrive at working with twins — was it just to give William a mirror of his own, or something along those lines? (As an aside, do you have any siblings?)

Anastas: I have a twin sister, and being a twin was something that I was very keen on writing about. But I knew that I should write about identical twins instead — there’s more competition, more overlapping of identities, more rage, more dysfunction.

Notes from Underground figures here, too. The narrator poses a question at one point along the lines of, “which is better: cheap happiness or sublime suffering?” I wanted to explore that question using William and his brother, Clive, to represent two choices — not that William’s suffering is always sublime or that Clive’s happiness is always cheap. It’s a false choice the way that the Underground Man poses it. I wanted to dramatize both sides in a different context — although, like in Dostoyevsky, the emphasis is on the suffering side.

The Rumpus: Would you care to touch on the overall structure of novel?

#2: P---- and his dog Toby are stuck on 'heel,' but they keep trying.

Anastas: I’ve had a lot of readers comment over the years that they wished the novel had kept on going — some even feel cheated that William never changes or learns anything over the course of the book. But to me, that was always the point. He’s naming his affliction and giving it some contour. Giving it life. Even the book itself is one more station in his life of failure; it can’t be a step in his recovery or a launching pad. That’s what the world wants. William has an almost religious conviction that what the world wants is corrupt.

The Rumpus: The book is heavy in psychology. How did that come about, and how does it lend itself toward the book as a whole — or the entirety of this family’s nucleus (mother and father, etc.)?

Anastas: I really wanted to be faithful to the time and place of the novel’s setting. Sort of like Manhattan, everyone in that world of Cambridge — liberal academics — would’ve been in therapy and sent their children to therapy for any perceived problem. What would disturb parents from the meritocracy who virtually lived on the Harvard Campus? A child who fails.

And of course, the so-called ‘talking cure’ is the source for recovery literature as we know it. Name your trauma, cast it out. It’s very similar to casting out a demon, in that there’s just no prayer. William names his trauma in exquisite detail, but he never casts it out. Instead, he holds it even closer to his heart.

The Rumpus: Why such pride of ownership, or authorship, in being an “underachiever”?

#1: E--- has big plans, but her job keeps getting in the way.

#1: E--- has big plans, but her job keeps getting in the way.

Anastas: I think success is still the greatest ideal we have in America. It is chief among the virtues that we take for granted, even though it’s the source of so much anguish and anxiety — if you have a lot of success, there’s always someone who has more; if you haven’t achieved what you want, then you’re going to be reminded of it every day. I’ve spent a lot of time in megachurches [researching] over the last few years — in Tampa, Atlanta, Texas — where the American success story has infiltrated the gospel. The appeal of material success runs so deep in us that it can rewrite the Bible and undo centuries of tradition.

To me being an underachiever, apart from the pride of failure, is about creating a different set of values to live by — other than the ones that say you are what you [earn in] a year, what kind of house you live in, what kind of car you drive, how super-cool and trendy your cultural associations are. Wait, I’m starting to sound like a crank again…

The Rumpus: Could you talk a little more about this illusive yet-to-be-completed third novel, which exists only in a German translation — and how it fits in with all of this?

Anastas: It’s the book that got away — or rather, the book that was too big for me. The title in English is At the Feet of the Divine, and it’s a glancing fictionalized retelling of my grandfather’s life in Prague and Austria in the years before the Anschluss. His name was Franz Wiener, and he killed himself in Winchester, Massachusetts, before I was born.  I wasn’t here yet, but it was still the most significant event of my childhood.

I worked on the novel for about four years.  Every day, it felt like I was failing.  Part of the first chapter was published in The Paris Review, and that cheered me up a little; but before I knew it, the book started to crush me again.  Somehow I finished a first draft, and somehow it ended up in the hands of my German-language publisher (they’re in Austria), and somehow they started translating it… Meanwhile my publisher here was less enthusiastic, and the readers I trust the most told me that it wasn’t quite finished. So the book was never published here, or anywhere else.

The manuscript sat on my desk, but I literally couldn’t lift the cover page and look inside. I turned to other things. It came out in Germany to the best reviews I’ve ever had for any novel, that didn’t help me face my grandfather again. It’s still unfinished. The irony is that, instead of ‘historical fiction,’ I had wanted Divine to read like a recently rediscovered German-language novel from that time period — and now the only way to read it is in German.  I know it’s a little perverse, but the symmetry really appeals to me.

S---- wonders if she should keep commuting to see her therapist.

#5: S---- wonders if she should keep commuting to see her therapist.

The Rumpus: What’s all this about the touring “U”?

Anastas: The designer Rodrigo Corral came up with a brilliant cover design for this edition that features a blue “U,” the underachiever’s version of the scarlet letter “A.” The Puritans abhorred adultery, we abhor anyone who won’t — or can’t — participate in the success triathlon. (And we have a word for people like that: ‘losers.’) I thought it would be fun to get some friends together for portraits wearing a steel version of the “U” that I had made up at a metal shop. When I was taking the first batch of portraits, lots of people asked what we were up to and when I told them, their faces lit up. “I’m an underachiever!” they said. I added a few of them to the gallery at the website and I’m going to keep on adding more. I hope people will write in and ask for the “U” so they can take their own portraits for the website. We are an army of underachievers millions strong!

The Rumpus: Lastly, it being ten years since Underachiever was first published, where do you see yourself and/or William today? (and Clive…) How has the world — their world, or yours — changed since then?

Anastas: I think William, if he lived in the same world that we do, would find much to encourage him, plenty to sadden him, and a lot that hasn’t changed at all since he ended his diary so abruptly. I’d like to think that he would still be failing at life with incredible ingenuity while Clive continued his ascent — maybe they would be living in Washington, D.C., now, with Clive having been appointed to a high post in the Obama justice department while William does underpaid “lobbying” for a fringe think-tank, probably giving talks at yoga studios about the coming change in 2012 and writing a blog about conspiracy and New Age prophecy.

I wish I could say that William’s sensibility is a complete invention and, by contrast, I’ve gone on to master life and fiction writing. But at every step it’s been the complete opposite — life and fiction have mastered me. My hope is that my experience has led to the kind of enlargement that produces something really special on the page. Time will tell.

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Book cover design by Rodrigo Corral.

Author photo by Lorena Ros.


Richard Meyers is a writer, and a bit of a malcontent, currently living under duress in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has a bachelor’s degree from an Ivy League institution, and enjoys riding his bicycle. He may or may not be twenty-nine years old ("depending on which realtor you ask"). More from this author →