Tuesday, April 27, 2004

An Underachiever’s Diary, By Benjamin Anastas, 1998, SPIKE Trade Paperbacks

The cover of this slender, pint-sized novella includes a blurb from the new york times book review, to wit: “recalls frederick exley’s masterpiece of the genre, a fan’s notes.” (All the cover writing is in lower-case, sooo underachieving when compared to the sophisticated and accomplished upper-case fonts.) The inside biography under an author photo, Anastas looking surprisingly like Tim Roth from the film Bodies, Rest & Motion, makes the claim that he “is a winner of the frederick exley fiction prize from gq” (still with the lc, boldface emphasis in original).

Which might lead you to think that I loved this novel as fiercely and as deeply as I love A Fan’s Notes. Well, no. The comparison with Exley is wildly off the mark, even if Anastas did when a prize named for him. A Fan’s Notes is almost an incomparable novel of poetic darkness and lyric despair. I have never read a book quite like it. Comparisons are unlikely and unwelcome. If there is one single whole laugh in Exley’s novel, it is the laugh of despair, the laugh from the very bottom of the well when one realizes it is time to simply give up and die, a bitter laugh indeed.

Which is not to say An Underachiever’s Diary is not enjoyable. The critics just seem to have overshot the mark. An Underachiever’s Diary is a wittily written exegesis on the life of one who has given up on striving, a mentality I have often succumbed to in my life. At one point during college, the narrator even writes a research project on underachieving in history and literature. His theory of underachieving is alone worth the price of the book (though to be fair and honest, I bought my own copy for one shiny dollar at a used bookstore).

Simply put, this novella tells the tale of William, older and underachieving brother to twin Clive, the brightest light in the firmament. The actual story outlines are left somewhat shapeless and vague, sketches more than fully fleshed portraits. We are treated to cradle reflections as William watches with resignation as Clive walks first, talks first, grows healthy while he sickly founders. His childhood is one illness or injury after another; his adolescence consists of being the weak half of a blind double date; and his familial role is The Failure. William puts forth little effort at his schooling, eventually going away to a college in a town in upstate New York, an experience so disheartening he can’t even name the town, instead referring to it as R— . There he embarks on an insipid romance with a drunk named Natalie, who he describes as “prone to short disappearances, broken dates, and lapses of memory that included my name.” After graduation he falls into one minor mishap after another: low-paying jobs, failed semi-romances, friendships with idiots and other losers, housing from hell, and ultimately bored membership in a rather passive cult.

What saves William’s tale from being one long pity party of whiny self-indulgent 90’s narcissism is Anastas’ rapier wit and trenchant eye for humorous detail. In a description of a tryst between William and Natalie in the library, Anastas writes: “…one night in the biography section … Natalie’s elbow dislodged a Carlos Baker and I came face to face with a single unblinking eye of a curious work-study student, searching through the lower stacks, probably, for young lovers at a third-rate university who had found a practical purpose for the outdated and mostly disintegrating volumes. ‘Hey,’ Natalie said when I suddenly stopped researching her cervix, ‘what gives?’ Our Peeping Tom slid the Baker back in the Dewey decimal order, and took off down the aisle. I mumbled an apology and tried, with some difficulty, to find my place. ‘Hurry up,’ she said. ‘Happy Hour starts in fifteen minutes.’”

Or consider this scene from William’s stint at a boy’s school:

Among the many who considered themselves flatulence musicians, Arthur Wheelwright was Igor Stravinsky and, like a prop comedian, carried with him at all times, in his book bag, a changing assortment of sight gags—I remember a lighter, a shining silver pinwheel, and a referee’s whistle…. A senior named Edward Flynn garnered the most popularity for picking up objects between the cheeks of his…you know what I mean, and nearly every night, after dinner and mandatory study hall in the library, we would gather in his dorm room for an exhibition…. I saw him lift ski boots, a clock radio, an extension lamp, two-liter Coke bottles both empty and full, a potted plant, textbooks. I even saw him lift a toolbox once, to gasps of astonishment….
“Don’t you think it’s kind of unsanitary?” I asked lamely.
Lucky for me a surprise inspection by Mr. Stocking prevented any violence, but as the crowd broke up I heard it from the seniors.
“Fag,” Edward called me.
“Leatherboy,” said Arthur Wheelwright.
“Dimwit.” That was Simeon Hurwitz, football player, who hired an English exchange student to take his SATs.
Ashish Rapathaswamy, a future early-round departure from Wimbledon, uttered a withering “Queer.” For the rest of the week they would make animal noises whenever I was in their vicinity.

A short read, An Underachiever’s Diary, doesn’t overstay its welcome. A longer novel perhaps would begin to grate on the nerves. William’s family, for instance, comes in for harsh scrutiny and the characters sketched there are a shade too one dimensional to be sustained over a longer piece. Clive is presented as a flawless human being, the star of both the basketball and football teams, the class valedictorian, the most popular boy in school dating the most sought-after girl, untiringly sympathetic and generous. He’s shown as little more than a foil for William to demonstrate his lowliness. The boys’ parents are little more than stereotypical 60’s leftists with a pooch named Castro followed on his death by a dog named Mitterand. They are nudists, Freudians, open about sex, pushy in a we-just-want-you-to-be-I’m-OK-You’re-OK-okay way, constantly falling into whatever mushy-headed, bleeding heart liberal fashion is prevalent at the time, whether that be indigenous people or Viennese schooling methodologies. They are as much sounding board cutouts as Clive.

Anastas has demonstrated an incisive writing style that can wax pithy before serving up the perfect epigram in all its brevity. One wonders what his style of writing would reflect from a more removed perspective, whether the same pseudo-intellectual smart-aleck voice would shine through or whether his abilities will prove the better of such a thoroughly conceived character’s life after this novella. His sophomore effort, The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance, is described as a suburban send-up of New England, and the critical blurbs suggest that his style is adaptable enough to move on to bigger and more target-rich environments.

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