The Beatrice Interview

Benjamin Anastas

"I mean, who says we should be happy?"

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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William, the darkly witty narrator of Benjamin Anastas's debut novel, is an avowed underachiever. But writing and publishing a novel is a pretty substantial achievement. When I point out the fleeting paradox to Anastas during our conversation in a Seattle bookstore, he responds, "I think in a lot of ways writers are underachievers. Nobody wants to work for a living, especially not a writer." But he's also concerned about the sloppy association of the writer with the character: "William, from the beginning, is very much a fictional construction, but one of the things I'm having to fight against in the question-and-answer periods at readings is this idea that William is just a stand-in for me, because he's really not." Do people ask Anastas why he wants to waste his life doing nothing? "That's William," he reiterates, "not me. But the truth is, if you're serious about writing literary fiction, you kind of are wasting your life. I'm really pleased that the book is coming out, but I don't have enormously high hopes that it will make me a rich man. And it hasn't yet." Maybe so, but An UnderAchiever's Diary is a pretty damn significant achievement.

RH: The book is set in the Boston area, and having grown up there, I have to say that it captures the locale very well.

BA: The neighborhood that the book is set in wasn't my neighborhood when I was growing up, but I had friends in school who lived on the street in Cambridge where the book is set. It's Francis Street in the book, but it's actually Francis Avenue. A lot of the friends I had in Cambridge did these kinds of typical of Cambridge, left-wing things--they were the liberal gentry, basically--and that class always fascinated me. This kind of moneyed liberalism is pretty ripe for satire.

RH: What drew you to the theme of the underachiever?

BA: The book started with a line from Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground, which is probably the book's most direct predecessor, where the narrator asks, which is better, cheap happiness or sublime suffering? I'd always wanted to write about twins, and that basically merged with this quote. I thought, "Okay, why don't I have these twin brothers? Clive can represent the happiness side. William can represent suffering." But Clive's a fully- rounded character, so his happiness isn't always cheap. And William is kind of pathetic sometimes, so his suffering isn't always sublime. Underachieving is his side of that balance. So much of what of what you read now or see in movies... we're looking at all these recovery narratives. Everyone's always getting over their problems. It's too familiar a path, and it doesn't really explain a whole lot to me. Happiness seems to me to be associated with wellness, and it's a conceit that's pretty particular to our age. I mean, who says we should be happy? So underachieving seemed to me the perfect way to write about a way of being willfully unhappy.

RH: You mentioned Notes from the Underground. The book's actually fairly self-conscious about that precedent. It struck me as being on a flip slide of confessional-type books, particularly of the St. Augustine variety. Your narrator says, essentially, "Yeah, my life IS screwed up, and you know what? I don't care."

BA: Yeah. Well, talk about Augustine and the conversion narrative. You're already talking about a passage from being sick to being well. Here there's no passage. William's in a static situation. It's another reason why it's a short novel. I don't think it could be possible to write a 400-page monologue. It would get a little bit tiresome after a while. I decided, instead, to write this really tightly constructed piece which pretty much just names him as an underachiever, as a loser.

RH: You also draw a lot on psychoanalytic discourse. William's clearly read up on a lot of the theories that explain why he is the way he is.

BA: I haven't read a whole lot of Freud, but his theories seem a lot more complicated than the watered-down pop psychoanalysis that kind of feeds everything these days. Back to the conversion idea, going from being sick to being well, that's what pop-psychoanalysis says: Okay, if you suffer this trauma, just, you know, get it out, then you'll come out the other end of the talking cure and you'll be fine. That's the kind of thing that William would look around and see and have to attempt. He's very much aware of the discourse that goes on in the world, and especially in his neighborhood, Cambridge in the '60s and the '70s and the '80s. This is one of the places, like New York, where everybody's in analysis, and what he's about is very much a reaction against that.

RH: And also, he's also quite explicit at one point, to make clear that underachieving is not a generation accident. He's not a Gen- X slacker.

BA: That just goes back to the idea of not wanting to be put into some kind of category or name, you know? I didn't want this to be a generational story. I wanted to write about something deeper than that, and forget about the specifics, forget about demographic categories, and go deeper into the human heart.

RH: Have you started on your next project?

BA: It's going to be more of a full-fledged novel that will take some of the issues that are in the background of this book, religion and politics and New England, and bring them more to the foreground. But I'm sure that my notion of it is bound to change during the course of the composition.

RH: What are some your favorite things that you've been reading?

BA: Well, lately, the last book that I read was The Factory of Facts by Luc Sante. Excellent book. His Low Life is just fantastic. I read that before I came to New York, and it's one of the things that made me want to move there. And I'm really not drawn to memoirs, but I think Luc Sante manages to do the memoir in a pretty nontraditional way, and noncommercial way, too.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Daniel Handler | Complete Interview Index | David S. Bennahum

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan