An Underachiever's Diary

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Meet William, a devout underachiever. He enters life as the firstborn of identical twin boys. It is the last time he will beat his overachieving brother Clive, or anyone else for that matter, at anything.

This is William’s manifesto for the underachiever. It is the chronicle of a lifetime of failure–part diary and part handbook for self-defeat. At once corrosively funny and surprisingly tender, An Underachiever’s Diary is a classic tale of ...

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An Underachiever's Diary: A Novel

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Meet William, a devout underachiever. He enters life as the firstborn of identical twin boys. It is the last time he will beat his overachieving brother Clive, or anyone else for that matter, at anything.

This is William’s manifesto for the underachiever. It is the chronicle of a lifetime of failure–part diary and part handbook for self-defeat. At once corrosively funny and surprisingly tender, An Underachiever’s Diary is a classic tale of perverse perseverance.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Recalls Frederick Exley’s masterpiece of the genre, A Fan’s Notes.” —New York Times Book Review

“I would be proud of myself if I ever underachieved so brilliantly.” —Ann Beattie

"The book's veils of irony are light enough to charm even the coolest reader, and its emotional details, particularly those of William's bond with his faultless brother, ring true."—The New Yorker

"Fantastic...A fun, funny book."—Detroit Free Press

“Very funny . . . A masterpiece of controlled failure in which the narrator fails to deliver on every front.” —New York Post

“From the first paragraph, Benjamin Anastas has got you.” —Thomas Mallon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Please do not confuse this diary with a memoir written for a therapeutic purpose," urges William, the narrator of this earnest, tender, achingly autobiographical first novel that reads like a manifesto for Generation Xers. An identical twin born in the mid-1960s to politically liberal parents in Cambridge, Mass., he sets out to define himself through a chronicle of his young life and by everything that his shining-example, more conventional brother is not: an "utter failure," a "screw-up"; in short, an underachiever. Where his brother, Clive, excels in academics, in making bright friends and winning the heart of the celestial girl next-door and in getting into Harvard, William becomes infatuated with a kind of grotesque failureattracting an alcoholic girlfriend, choosing a third-rate college, joining a San Francisco cult. He is the loser son every mother fears having, and he's proud of the ignoble distinction. In carefully and formally constructed, exquisitely cadenced prose, Anastas succeeds in capturing an adolescent's navet, self-absorption and instinct for melodramaand in filtering it all through a fierce intelligence. Cultural signifiers offering a clue to the influences on the narrator are plentiful: William Faulkner, TV shows like A Family Affair, classical authors and St. Augustine. Though William scoffs at being the representative of his maligned generation "I hear rumors that my condition is widespread", there are just the right amounts of candor, wit, puerile humor and perverse irreverence in Anastas's work to succeed at that. Mar. FYI: Anastas has won both Story's College Fiction Competition and GQ's Frederick Exley Fiction Prize.
Library Journal
Identical twins Clive and William (the underachiever of the title) were born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1965 to suburban nudist-vegetarian parents who had toured Mexico "in search of armed insurrectionists and returned with the perfect dining-room set." Ability was distributed evenly between them, but the uses they made of it were utterly dissimilar. Clive has enjoyed a life filled with friends and success, while William's every choice and action has ensured mediocrity. He endures illness (eczema, mumps), humiliating accidents, abominable choices of secondary school and college, an alcoholic girlfriend who regularly forgets his name, a succession of dead-end service-sector jobs, and a stay in a San Francisco cult. There is real resonance in William, determined to make the least of his considerable gifts, and this witty and appealing debut "diary" should find readers in both public and academic libraries.Judith Kicinski, Sarah Lawrence Coll. Lib., Bronxville, N.Y.
James Polk
William, the firstborn of twin boys, has determined to spend the rest of his life making sure he will never be first again. In the course of Benjamin Anastas's fine, funny debut novel, An Underachiever's Diary, William provides exquisitely detailed explanations of his strategies for falling short -- even backing them up with a vague attempt at scholarship. -- James Polk, New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A wearyingly discursive if often very funny fictional autobiography in the form of a diary kept by the less accomplished of a proud progressive couple's deeply divergent twin sons. William, the elder (by seven minutes), grows up in the 1960s in Cambridge, Mass., among a "distracted, quasi-Bohemian family" that includes his cheerful, universally admired prodigy brother Clive, and parents who lovingly encourage healthful nudity and candid family discussions of adolescent masturbation and other (preferably, William would say) guilty secrets. William, who demonstrates precocity only as a curmudgeon, is in fact his exemplary brother's intellectual equal (perhaps superior). But he delights in disappointing others' expectations (for reasons never really made clear). In a skimpy chronological narrative that's nevertheless buoyed by Anastas's gift for offbeat comic phrasing, we learn of William's successive disgraces as a slow learner of the basics of infancy and childhood (in the matter of toilet training, for example, he grunts and strains inefficiently in contrast to Clive, "a Green Beret in diapers"); a sickly adolescent who pines for beauteous schoolmate Faith Crick (Clive's girlfriend, naturally) but is usually paired with elephantine Dorothea Zimmerman; a private-school failure at "bootcamp-style intramural sports" and a sexual misfit who rejects his brother's offers to help him lose his virginity . . . on and on it goes, through quickly sketched college experiences, when William has a drinking problem and a girlfriend "prone to short disappearances, broken dates and lapses of memory that included my name." Inconclusive further adventures in San Francisco and New York City precede theabandonment of William's diary (another task he can't complete). One wants to keep quoting, but not necessarily to keep reading what's essentially a (pretty good) one-joke book. This is, however, on balance a first novel in need of a plot.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385343046
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/28/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 4.90 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Benjamin Anastas is the author of The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, Men's Vogue, and GQ.

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Read an Excerpt

The Early Years

Istarted strong, the firstborn of identical twin boys, leading my reluctant brother out into the world by seven minutes flat, give or take a moment to suspend my infant’s disbelief in the delivery room. By the time he finally emerged, feetfirst, tangled in his umbilical cord and placid in the obstetrician’s forceps, I had already taken my welcome smack, wailed my way into the human race, while sure hands cut my own cord, wiped me down, and bundled me in swaddling clothes. I had a name: William, chosen by my father, who had coveted it for himself since childhood. In the turmoil of the coming years my parents would consider changing my name to Guillaume, in honor of the student protests in Paris (this was 1968), and later, after a trip to Mexico, where they toured the countryside in search of armed insurrectionists and returned with the perfect dining- room set, they toyed with calling me Guillermo. My parents were still in their Anglophilic stage when we were born, and chose a fitting name for my brother: Clive. Clive narrowly escaped becoming Claude—they were, at least, consistent—and Chico. 

In their fondest dreams, then, the universe was ruled over by the Warren Supreme Court, and following the precedent of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), they believed their children would be guaranteed an equal opportunity to grow and thrive. The recent Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) ruling held that, no matter how helpless or indigent, we would always have a voice in family matters. We endured no cutesy nicknames in our formative years, and wore no matching clothes. We would be ordinary brothers, they believed, just closer, and the fact that we were twins would neither limit our development nor provide unfair advantage over the silent, solitary majority. They took smug satisfaction, however, in a line from Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, which my pregnant mother had underlined in their well- thumbed paperback edition: “Twins . . . develop special strength of personality from being twins: early independence of parental attention, unusual capacity for cooperative play, great loyalty and generosity toward each other.” In other words, they had high hopes for us.

What’s it like to be a twin? I shared wombtime with someone else, which might explain my love of open spaces, and my tendency to live in cramped ones (more on this trend later). Unlike many other people I have no problem spending hours on end—even days in succession— by myself. Sometimes I think I can remember what it was like to be in utero, locked inside my mother’s swampy trunk, nothing to do but listen to the outside world, grow, and wait for birth, my brother there beside me like a shadow, an explanation for the darkness that would so soon come to light; I reached for life and swam, elbowed my way past him to the delivery room, only to be confused by what I found there. Why so many faces? Who turned on the bright lights? My first cry must have given voice to more than shock, or fear, or a newborn’s mad confusion; perhaps to careful ears there was also a hint of sadness over what I’d left behind, and a contradictory delight; after all, I had abandoned the comforts of our sleepy home, the prodigal son, born into all the love and expectations of real life. 

And then I met my counterpart, my mirror image, my five- pound- eight- ounce secret sharer. In my imagination our first moments of consciousness loom large: both swaddled now, we rest in our mother’s arms, and I stare at this pretender to my title. He blinks his eyes and wriggles uncomfortably. He is small, and the nurses have left some froth above one eyebrow. His coloring is strange, like a bruise about to blossom; in a moment they will snatch him away from me, and more than my beaming, exhausted mother, or the unmasked obstetrician, or the wide- eyed attending nurses, I will remember his face, so bewildered by the predicament of life, so ungrateful. I want to console him, when language is still just a capacity deep within me; I want to touch him, even though sensation is unfamiliar; then he is gone for observation, and I am lifted from my mother’s arms to discover, for the first time, how solitude is really filled with other people, and I am unoriginal, a copy made from disparate parts: some drunk idea my father had, a soft place inside my mother’s arguments for equal rights, organs and fluids, fireflies and stars. Later, in the nursery, I like to think that I waited for Clive, and when they finally lowered him beside me in the bassinet my unhinged gaze, for a moment, met its weaker double, and in the course of my hand’s instinctive trip from self to other, I flashed him an older brother’s first thumbs- up sign. 

After such a brilliant start, however, I was bound to falter. Sucking, a vital instinct in every newborn, was a problem for me. Back home now, Clive and I were each assigned a breast, mine the left, which hung a little lower with its burden, and his the right. Clive sucked happily, I am told, while I would gum my nipple, spit it out, try again without success, turn an angry color red, and howl. My parents called friends and pediatricians, met with a midwife, and consulted Dr. Spock repeatedly. They tried everything prescribed and still, feeding time was torture: I gummed and fussed until my father intervened with formula, draped in towels to protect him from the overspill. Meanwhile, Clive would smack his shiny lips, already finished with his rightful breast, and reach for mine. Soon Clive’s appetite had flushed his cheeks, brightened his eyes, and started him on his way to a snowsuit of baby fat. Once I had finished dribbling formula all over my father, I would vomit. I grew skinny and turned yellow, a coloring that remained throughout my early infancy, even after I had found my appetite. 

Clive’s first smile was recorded during this period, a goofy, full- faced grin that followed a particularly hearty feeding. He had mastered gurgling and blowing little bubbles. My only talents, it seemed, were filling my diapers with a toxic paste indifferent to laundry detergent, and screaming at the top of my lungs. 

Sadly, inexplicably, I continued to lag behind my twin brother. At three weeks he had learned to suck his thumb when he wanted to be fed, while my hands were still a mystery to me, unpredictable and vaguely threatening, like birds. I sucked my favorite pillow instead, a taste that led to a series of major suffocation scares, until my parents took my only dripping comfort away from me. At four weeks Clive’s eyes stopped rolling around on their own, and focused all their helpless charm on our mother, who melted, as anyone with a heart would; when my eyes kicked in a month later, I looked right through my mother to the fuzzy blackness behind her and, later, when my eyes improved, at the large, immovable objects in our nursery: a heavy dresser filled with baby clothes and blankets; a looming wardrobe; an antique dry sink, which my parents used as a changing table and diaper- storage cabinet. The furniture frightened me. So did the telephone, which sent me into spasms when it rang, and so did our dog, Castro, a dopey yellow Labrador who was forever sniffing around my crib, sticking his nose between the wooden bars and panting at me. The same behavior made Clive’s face light up. He started babbling to the dog, right on schedule, and soon he was running off at the mouth whenever he felt like it. His crib was right beside my own, and I would listen to his sweet, high voice in the stillness of our nursery. We communicated in a kind of ur-language: Clive played scales of consonants and vowels, like a musician; I answered him with long and drawn- out monosyllables. In all likelihood Clive taught me how to speak. 

It was summer, our first season in the world, and a soft wind rustled the ancient maple tree outside our open windows. Cars passed by our house. So did graduate students on foot. Our parents stopped in our doorway one afternoon and listened to their children play. They were newly skeptical of many things—religion television, government—but Clive’s voice had a way of realigning their beliefs, lifting their spirits out of irony and disillusionment, as if his existence, alone, were evidence of all the better things in life that might be possible, if they kept their vigilance. The dog came loping up the stairs to listen too. “Castro . . .” my father warned. 

“What do you think he’s saying?” my mother asked. 

“ ‘Come clean about Vietnam,’ ” he said. “ ‘I didn’t vote for President Johnson.’ ” 

“I think,” my mother answered, “he’s talking to William.” They listened. “See that?” 

“God, that’s a horrible sound.” 

“Give William time,” my mother said. “He’s just learning, that’s all.” 

“They both can’t be remarkable, right? Think of Kennedy and Johnson.” 

“Poor Jack.” 

“I know,” my father said, and they shared a moment of silence. 

“Still, I don’t like that comparison,” my mother argued. 

“All right,” my father said, “then he’s Bobby. Or maybe Teddy, that handsome devil. They say he might turn out the best of all Joe’s sons.” 

I don’t know how long my parents stayed there. I don’t know, really, if this conversation happened as I have written it. I know my parents well because they raised me, I know my brother because he is my opposite, I know the period and place because I lived in them completely. My parents are, if anything, candid in their recollections, and despite my other faults, I have a very good memory. You’ll have to take my word for what you read here, though, and even if this story is more fiction than documentary evidence, it is closer to the truth of my childhood, perhaps, than mere reality. Narrativity scholars, footnote compilers, windbag experimentalists, listen up: I am one step ahead of you.  

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Interviews & Essays

On Thursday, March 19th, welcomed Benjamin Anastas, author of AN UNDERACHIEVER'S DIARY.

Moderator: Welcome to the live Auditorium. Tonight first-fiction author Benjamin Anastas joins us to chat live about his debut novel, AN UNDERACHIEVER'S DIARY. Welcome, and thank you for joining us tonight, Benjamin Anastas! Congratulations on AN UNDERACHIEVER'S DIARY. Before we begin, do you have any opening comments?

Benjamin Anastas: Just that I'm pleased to be invited to to speak with readers.

Paris from New Rochelle, NY: Good evening, Benjamin Anastas! I read in your bio that you attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Could you tell us a bit about this experience? How did it help to shape your development as a writer? Would you recommend that young writers attend MFA programs to hone their craft? Also, does Iowa today live up to the reputation it built in the '70s?

Benjamin Anastas: The reason why I went to an MFA program in the first place is that I wanted to be around writers. I was very young, 22, when I went to Iowa -- perhaps too young -- and I found it a difficult but great experience. I highly recommend MFA programs to other young writers, but attending one certainly isn't necessary. When I was in college, writing was something that I had done in secret, and to all of a sudden meet 50 other people who had the same secret was liberating. As to Iowa's reputation, the teachers they attract are excellent, but other MFA programs are just as strong. I learned as much from my peers as I did from any faculty member, and the process of workshopping short stories really accelerated my progress...I hope.

Louise from Trenton, NJ: I know a lot of first novelists get their starts in literary journals and magazines. Can we find any of your other work in either of these venues?

Benjamin Anastas: Yes, actually. My first short story was published in Story magazine in 1992. While I was in graduate school I was fiction editor of The Iowa Review, and while I was there, I had the privilege of publishing book reviews. After that, my next published short story was in the November '94 issue of GQ. And the rest of my short stories are in the bottom drawer of my desk.

Wanda from Oakland, California: What do you think Dr. Spock rest his soul would have to say about the way the parents in your book raised William and Clive?

Benjamin Anastas: Rest his soul is right. I have to admit to being a little bit unfamiliar with his overarching theory of child-rearing, but I think he would have been pleased. It was very important for me as I was writing the book to paint a generous portrait of the parents. So many books about the '60s and '70s are infused with a bitterness about the countercultural quirks of the time, especially as they appear in parents. To me Clive and William's parents are essentially good people. So, yes, I think Dr. Spock would have been pleased.

Yuri from Grand Rapids, MI: Hey, Ben. Have you seen "Slacker"? Are you a fan of the Church of the SubGenius?

Benjamin Anastas: Actually, no, I've never seen "Slacker," but I think Linklater is a genius. I loved "Dazed and Confused." Like everybody else, I'm puzzled by the Church of the SubGenius, so I can't strictly call myself a fan.

Jonathan S. from right here: I read on the back of your jacket a quote that said that William is the most "convincing character of his type since Holden Caulfield." Do you think the comparison with Holden Caulfield is a true comparison, or do you think this is just what publishers say when they encounter a young disenchanted character?

Benjamin Anastas: Good question! The comparison to Holden Caulfield comes at the end of a much longer quote that the publishers edited. I don't see a direct relationship between William and Holden. Francisco Goldman in the original quote argued that characters in American fiction who resist the pressure to succeed constitute a "near-criminal type." In this sense, William and Holden Caufield bear some resemblance to one another. Otherwise, there are a number of important differences. William's voice is more mature than Holden's, as one small example. And while I love Salinger, I respond the strongest to his last published book, RAISE HIGH THE ROOFBEAM, CARPENTERS AND SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION. But I think when the publishers receive two quotes that mentioned Salinger, they lost their heads.

Viva from NYC: Have you read Maggie Estep's DIARY OF AN EMOTIONAL IDIOT? What do you think of her? You two seem to have something in common, what with your both being hailed as upcoming great writers for the MTV generation, and what with your both having "diary" in your titles.

Benjamin Anastas: I didn't know I was being hailed as an up-and-coming young writer for the MTV generation. If I am, I guess that's good. I haven't read Maggie Estep's book, and don't know very much about her. I tend to avoid the spoken-word poetry scene. But maybe, if you recommend her book, I'll take a look at it.

Marianne from Wichita, Kansas: Hi, Mr. Anastas! Just bought your book and I can't wait to read it. In the meantime, it's great to be chatting online with the author! Tell me, since I'm getting a sense of you before the book, is there anything semiautobiographical in AN UNDERACHIEVER'S DIARY?

Benjamin Anastas: Wow, this is a big question. William is an entirely fictional construct, but I have filtered some autobiography through him. I was hoping to reproduce the tone of an autobiographical first novel as I wrote, even if the events had nothing to do with me. I am a fraternal twin, rather than an identical one. I have a twin sister named Rhea. I had always wanted to write about twins but didn't feel comfortable doing so until I was certain that I was writing fiction.

Tom from Bridgeport, CT: If you were to describe your daily writing habits, with whom do you better compare, Clive or William? How about in your day-to-day personal life?

Benjamin Anastas: What I've learned from publishing my first book is that writing itself becomes more difficult under the various pressures you become subject to. I've always been very disciplined -- like Clive -- but my heart is closer, I think, to William's. A lot of writers talk about how characters represent different facets of their personality, and I think it's the same with the twins.

Karen from Bloomington, Indiana: Are you in touch with any other first novelists/fellow writers from Iowa? Anyone we should watch out for?

Benjamin Anastas: One of my favorite writers is named Rebecca Lee. She's just published short stories at this point -- all three have been in The Atlantic Monthly -- but at some point she'll come out with a book, and I'm sure it will be brilliant. Another novel to watch out for is from a young writer named Peter Craig. He's from Los Angeles, and he's written a very funny satire of celebrity culture.

Vicky from Washington, D.C.: You have very vivid descriptions in your novel of cities on both coasts. Where did you spend most of your life? Do you feel as if you belong to one more than to the other?

Benjamin Anastas: I'm definitely an East Coaster. The San Francisco section of the novel is based on one very brief visit, basically a fact-finding mission. Frankly, life out there seems too good to be true, but then again, I'm a transplanted New Yorker. The novel, to me, is deeply grounded in a specific place, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I wanted to capture the particular mixture of class and progressive politics so prevalent there.

LaSalle from Rochester, NY: Where did this story begin for you? Did you start to think about the William's character first a fantastic antihero, by the way, or did you think of the story and events first?

Benjamin Anastas: The story began with a line from Dostoyevsky's NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND. Toward the end of the book, Underground Man, the narrator, asks, "Which is better, cheap happiness or sublime suffering?" The question seemed unfairly weighted to me. So I thought a way to strike a balance might be to have one twin brother, Clive, represent cheap happiness, although since he is a fully rounded character, his happiness isn't all that cheap, and the other twin, William, represent sublime suffering, not that his suffering is always sublime. I guess the fact that I chose William to narrate the story shows that I am more sympathetic to the suffering side of the equation.

Pammi from Houston, TX: As your first novel, AN UNDERACHIEVER'S DIARY is funny and quirky. Is this something we can expect from you in future novels, or is it just a coincidence that this is your first novel? Is this, so to speak, your style?

Benjamin Anastas: Pammi, are you really my editor? This is the beginning of my style, and I hope it will grow and evolve over the course of my writing life. Everyone close to me in publishing hopes that I stay funny, but I can't make any promises. To me, the humor in the book is deepened by a kind of sadness, and I think this feeling will characterize, more than anything else, everything I write.

Benjamin from Benjamin: What were your "early" days of writing like? Did you always know it was what you wanted to do? Also, do you have another career, or do you write full-time?

Benjamin Anastas: I just did a whole interview about this subject in The Boston Phoenix see Essentially, I do think GenX is a meaningless label, and underachieving as a theory only means something within the context of the book.

Bretton from Chicago, IL: Your book is so fresh and original, right down to the jacket! How much say, as a first-fiction author, did you have in how the book was put together and marketed?

Benjamin Anastas: The truth is, the author has some say, but not very much. Luckily I am with an excellent press, and they had the foresight to hire a brilliant book designer. After Michael Kaye he's the book designer read the book, he told me, "My mind was empty of images." That's the highest praise it's received so far, in my book.

Moderator: Mr. Anastas, thank you so much for joining us tonight. It was a real pleasure. Do you have any closing comments?

Benjamin Anastas: I just want to thank everyone for reading and paying attention to a first novel in a time when literary fiction doesn't seem to mean anything. A readership, however small or large, means more to an author than one might think.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 5 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2011


    Just that.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2008


    funny,great discriptions.enjoyable.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2006


    If you liked The Catcher in the Rye, then you must read this 'diary.' I have thoroughly enjoyed both. This story makes one go right along with William and allows you to share his feelings, no matter how odd. At some points you laugh out loud and at others you want to pat the poor guy on the back.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2004

    Extremely disappointing

    Perhaps the title should have given it away, but this book was a bore. I got halfway through and I was thinking to myself, What am I reading? What is the point of this? Where is this story going? The answer is no where. Save you money and buy something else.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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