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Book Review / Fiction

Embracing the Heart of a Questing Soul

AN UNDERACHIEVER'S DIARY by Benjamin Anastas. The Dial Press, $15.95, 150 pages

March 20, 1998|MICHAEL FRANK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Benjamin Anastas' "An Underachiever's Diary" is an interesting example of a book aiming to join thesis, content, length and even physical presentation into a single aesthetic whole. The dust jacket is empty and white. The author's photograph is minute, as is the typeface. The book's fictive goals are similarly circumscribed: Anastas' narrator, William, warns the reader very clearly that he is not writing a Bildungsroman, a spiritual confession or a therapeutic memoir.

Less novel than meditation, this sly fiction's greatest strength is the finely tuned voice Anastas has created for William, who takes us (in a nonlinear way) through his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood without ever faltering in his often droll, deadpan delivery.

The genesis of William's status as an underachiever begins at birth and is set into vivid and instant relief by his overachieving identical twin brother, Clive. William is slight to Clive's substantial, slow to his fast, clumsy to his athletic. With regard to clinical studies that would prove that identical twins follow paths that are "preordained, subject to the self same tastes, whims, talents," William says simply, "Bunk." The only area in which William rivals, perhaps surpasses Clive, is in intelligence, as psychological tests show.

William is a perceptive observer of his place and time, which are Cambridge, Mass., of the late '60s and early '70s. His father is an acoustical engineer, and his mother is a computer programmer who has enough inherited money to make their "distracted, quasi-Bohemian" family life possible. Home is "a cross between the Playboy mansion (nudity, recreational drugs) and a Shaker village (pacifism, unfinished wood)."

The boys are sent to a Hort, a Viennese alternative kindergarten that stresses creativity and self-esteem. They are psychoanalyzed by a woman called Sibyl who has a Hannah Arendt bun and is disappointed when William, underachieving as always, reports no exciting sexual fantasies about his mother and admits to no hostility toward his father. (Clive, meanwhile, emerges from the consulting room wiping his eyes.)

At high school, the boys part ways: William attends a boys' boarding school, proceeds to an unnamed second-rate college in upstate New York, then heads for San Francisco, where he eventually joins a halfhearted cult in the Haight.

Plot is not of much importance to "An Underachiever's Diary"; it is subordinate to the "full rhododendron bloom" of William's abilities as an underachiever. His life may be devoid of warmth or intimacy, William explains, but such staleness can be "a kind of transcendental bliss."

William makes this assertion, however, after an important encounter with his brother's ex-girlfriend, Faith Crick, of whom he says elsewhere: "She believed that I had every right to exist in the same charmed universe as my twin." It is here that the reader begins to wonder whether William is protesting a little too much, whether his elaborate theories of underachievement are not concealing a certain elusive but palpable inner sadness, a sense of not quite belonging that he partly values but also regrets. William is, after all, a deeply questing spirit: He wonders about the presence of God, sympathizes with ascetics and asks himself what he calls the "greater questions of identity" such as "Am I really here?"

True to voice, William follows such speculation by conceding that it is simplified--as it would be, coming from an underachiever. In such moments Anastas' motif begins to feel a little too easy, almost a kind of narrative tick, yet in the aggregate his celebration of less over more serves as an unusual tonic. In our culture, where fame, celebrity, wealth and other forms of empty achievement are overly venerated, it is bracing to meet this thoughtful narrator who learns a reverence for "broken things, for our fragile bodies, and for the transitory nature of human relationships." William comes to recognize the "beauty at the heart of everything" he's missed, and in a gentle way he leads the reader to do the same.

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