The Underminer: Raid for the Roaches of the Soul

Hey, it’s you! I thought you’d disappeared. No! No! You’re missed! By me, at least. I guess I just haven’t come across your work recently. That’s so you, to disappear off the radar screen like that and not care. So quirky, so indie, so Eastern. Not into mere recognition. It’s all about the work!

And sometimes it’s good to be out of circulation, I mean if that’s what you really want.

What’s this I’m reading? It’s the galleys of this amazing book, coming out in February, The Underminer. I haven’t read it personally, and now Steven wants it so badly I’m FedExing him my copy. Um, Soderbergh? I think I told you we were working on some wacky thing. You know the deal.

Anyway, I’m surprised they didn’t send you a galley. Well, there was probably a big demand and they had to make a cut-off somewhere. It’s funny though, I was out with some people from Paris Review and all the interns there had the galley. Maybe you, like, dropped off some lists after your-well-downtime?

But you’re working on yourself and that’s great! I always tell people you’re a survivor.

O.K., stop. Game Over. I’ve been doing a poor imitation of the pitch-perfect voice, the quintessential New York voice, the quintessential New York character that Mike Albo and Virginia Heffernan have created in their forthcoming urban satire: The Underminer (and just for the record, although they are supposedly friends, I was NOT sent a galley for The Underminer; I had to beg Virginia for a copy when I heard it was coming out.)

But they’ve uncannily replicated a voice that’s irresistible to imitate, a voice impossible to avoid if you live here. The Underminer is a compressed comic classic of New York, a kind of anti–E.B. White fable that focuses on the one unavoidable character everyone in New York runs into, usually a “friend” but really an urban predator of the psyche, bred out of an unstable fusion of ambition and envy, of Schadenfreude and Gluckschmerz. (You know the former: joy at the failure of others. The latter may be less familiar: sadness at the success of others.)

Add a strain of something very American: oblivious self-congratulation. Fold in an arsenal of barbed compliments, faux-flattery, paranoia-inducing praise that is idiosyncratically New York, and you’ve got The Underminer, a defining figure of our age, alas.

“No one should come to New York,” E.B. White said, with cheerful bravado, “unless he is willing to be lucky.” No, Mr. Albo and Ms. Heffernan say, if you come to New York, be willing to suffer the subtle slimings, the pernicious solicitousness, the self aggrandizing, name-dropping self-deprecation that define The Underminer. Be prepared to suffer fraudulent bonhomie disguising malevolent glee, made all the more irritating because it’s coming from a “friend” who doesn’t realize how transparent the charade is. Or maybe the shameless transparency is the point: see how much subtle abuse you can take without objecting and then being reproved for “going all sensitive and paranoid.”

I guess you could make a case that, in an abstract, sociobiological way, The Underminer, these “predators of the psyche,” serve a Darwinian function, the way predators in the wild separate out the slower, more trusting wildebeests. The Underminers keep their prey on their toes. They are one more Test-trial by ire-that the culture of the city (particularly the “creative community”) puts you through, the challenge being to channel the irritation rather than succumb to it, take the bait. Properly channeled, The Underminer drives creativity through negativity. (I think it works better than positive thinking.)

The Underminer made his (or her) first appearance in some sketches that Mike Albo, the novelist and monologist, wrote for this paper’s N.Y. World section. I think it was some version of this passage that caught my eye when it first appeared in an Underminer monologue:

“Me? I’m fine, I’m fine…you know, working with Robert Wilson and Tom Waits on their next world-touring experimental staged opera.

“You didn’t know? Oh I guess I’ve been sort of mellow and unpromotional about it. I more let people ask me …. [We’ve] been working on a four-part retelling of Cherokee legends. You know those guys, always trying to do something timeless and sustaining, yadda yadda.”

That last “yadda yadda”: the perfect note of false self-deprecation fused with self-congratulation, of self-promotion fused with the ostensible high-minded dismissal of self-promotion. And there is that perfect ear for tone (“I more let people ask me”) and detail (name-dropping Robert Wilson, the god of the grant-getting avant-garde).

Still, I wondered how they’d turn it into a book when I heard that Mike was collaborating with Virginia on an Underminer novel. She’d worked together with him since they’d met in college. And although she’s best-known now for her sharp-witted writing about TV, she would often help craft Mike’s satiric-ecstatic theatrical monologues. Anyway, it turns out they came up with a smart device for the book: just go with that voice, that great Dickensian monster of a comic-satiric character that voice creates. Turn that voice into a novel in the form of an episodic monologue which takes The Underminer and his “friend” from college to New York, where they embark on a 15-year voyage through the world of downtown creative careerism-glimpses of which we get when the two run into each other and The Underminer works his malevolent magic.

The novel records the effect of The Underminer’s psychic depredations on the tormented friend whose life is ultimately destroyed by them. Nasty. But fun. And very funny. I started out dog-earing the pages of the galley I laughed the most at, but then ended up dog-earing most of the book. Among my favorites:

The Underminer is your friend in college who you run into on graduation day and says he (or she) has to run off “to the dean’s small cocktail party for honors students and then I had to hurry up and turn in that Green Form so I could graduate.

“You know, the Green Form … you didn’t turn it IN?! … “

Rule No. 1: The Underminer is a master of applied paranoia. (But don’t forget that “Green Form.” Yes, green is the color of envy, but I think the lost “Green Form” is a metaphor for the lost green innocence of youth, the lost illusions The Underminer thrives on in the city. Did someone write a novel with that title? Not Green Form. Lost Illusions.)

And then when you move to New York and get into an internship program at a happening art gallery, The Underminer is your friend who says, “Boswyck Gallery? Weird! Did they expand their program? I thought it was just for teens. No, I’m sure I’m wrong.”

And, years later, when you’re trying to promote your work, The Underminer is the friend who somehow sleazes his way into power at the gallery and makes the following demeaning pretense at generosity:

“You know, you should come by and leave flyers next time you have a show. We love to support the community here, and you can put your flyer here with all the other great things going on-teen spoken word and contact dance improv and a cappella groups. Feel free!”

(Gotta love “contact dance improv,” no?)

And The Underminer is your friend who “consoles” you after a breakup: “Are you OK? No I mean I know you say you are, but are you OK? Really? Yeah. No. Yeah. I understand why you can’t really show your emotions. Take it slowly. Don’t ignite your fears …. “

Rule No. 2 of The Underminer: Actively ignite fears. Rule No. 2, subparagraph A: The pretense of concern is a beautiful belittling device.

And The Underminer is the friend who has mastered a third technique: the subtly destructive Negative Reframing Device. The one who feels compelled to tell the friend who’s gone into a 12-step program: “That’s probably why I haven’t seen you around ….You have all your sober friends and support groups and stuff. You know, I have a confession. I hate rigidity. My friend Adam just wrote the most interesting well-researched piece in The New Yorker about AA. How the whole sobriety culture can be like worse than alcoholism. No, seriously, in some cases. But no, I know you were a different scenario. It’s different for some people like you, who needed it, since it’s something organized.”

The Underminer, it should be clear, is not the same thing as a critic or a bad-mouther. These are at least up front or behind your back (respectively) with their belittling. The Underminer has raised the smiling-in-your-face reverse put-down to an art. As in the fourth technique, the praise that slays:

Here’s The Underminer commenting on his “friend’s” new work: “Anyway, yay about that little play you wrote and performed … it’s really great that you are doing that. You did it, you took a step. You know I really admire you. It’s just so great that you are just going to stick it out and see how long it takes.”

And then, when you’re looking for work, there’s the name-drop that is a drop-kick: “Ugh, what a difficult time to find work, much less do something fulfilling …. Actually, my friend Adam is writing an extensive article in The New Yorker about all that. He’s calling it ‘Generation Jobless’. You should get in touch with him. I will totally keep an eye out for you, though. Have you ever thought of being an assistant for museum security? [And] I hear since the smoking ban, a lot of people are making money by selling single cigarettes on the street in front of bars. I’m not saying you should do that, I just meant that there are opportunities right under your nose.”

And I can’t leave out the classic of the magazine-world Underminer:

“Where are you working? Kid’s Vogue? How great. Wow. I thought that was being discontinued. No, sorry I just heard … I am sure you can roll over to some position of equal or lesser stature at another book.”

They really do have a perfect ear for Underminer-speak. And they’ve created a character that sent me to the library to reread that ancient Athenian forerunner of urban satire, The Characters by Theophrastus. He was the favored disciple of Aristotle whose book consists of character sketches of 30 different irritating urban types. I’d always been struck by how the caricatures of urban satire haven’t really changed over 2,400 years. Most haven’t changed since Theophrastus. You see them in Roman poetry, in the epigrams of Martial and the satires of Juvenal, not to mention the obscene rants of Catullus at the world of pretentious rival poets and self-congratulatory literary cliques.

It wasn’t till rereading the Loeb translation that I was reminded how many of Theophrastus’ characters are obnoxious talkers who define themselves and derive much of their irritation factor from their annoying, dishonest, hostile or hypocritical tone of voice. There must have been a lot of captious yammering in Athens, along with the noble orations.

Anyway, one can find analogues of many of Theophrastus’ characters-rendered in the Loeb translation as “Dissembling,” “Flattery,” “Boorishness,” “Obsequiousness,” “Rumor Mongering,” “Bad Taste,” “Petty Ambition,” “Lack of Generosity,” “Fraudulence” and “Arrogance”-fused in different levels of strength and toxicity in the rhetoric of The Underminer.

But here’s the remarkable thing: Theophrastus (at least in the Loeb translation) is just not as funny (on a regular basis) as The Underminer. He’s a little too ticked off, and it shows. Mike and Virginia’s monologue technique is the deadpan kill-no need to comment or reprove; replication of that highbrow sleazeball tone alone is enough.

I’m not sure “funnier than Theophrastus (in the Loeb translation)” is going to send this book flying off the shelves, but I really want all New Yorkers, especially The Underminers among us, to read it. I think there’s a chance that by holding up a mirror to The Underminer’s soul (or a mike up to their voices), Mr. Albo and Ms. Heffernan may succeed in undermining The Underminers. And that grating, insinuating tone of voice will become so recognizable for what it is: the transparent dissembling of friendship and admiration in order to demean. Maybe it will become so recognizable that shame will silence it. (I’m thinking of having cards made up with just The Underminer and publication details on it, so I can just hand the cards to egregious Underminers.)

O.K., if “funnier than Theophrastus (in the Loeb translation)” won’t do, what about calling it “The ‘Positively 4th Street’ for our time”? Beneath The Underminer’s deadpan is Dylan’s sneer and dead-on observation. Perhaps The Underminer will show The Underminers “what a drag it is to see you,” as Dylan put it in “4th Street.” Maybe it might even show the Underminer types (and this would be great) “what a drag it is to be you.”

It would be a terrific public service, although if this book succeeds in undermining The Underminers, I’m somehow doubtful they can be totally stamped out. From Theophrastus on, they survive like roaches: Satire checks them, but they don’t check out. (“Positively 4th Street” shone a light on hostile “friendships” but didn’t put The Underminer out of business). They’re survivors!

But at least now that we have The Underminer, it will be harder for The Underminers to pretend innocence of their petty malevolence. (And the book can stand, like a memento mori, to remind all of us to curb our own Inner Underminer). The Underminer is Raid for the roaches of the soul.