Discouraging words

“The Underminer” chronicles those subtle non-jab jabs that make you feel like dirt.

By Josie Roberts (Political and Social Thought '03)
Book Jacket of “The Underminer.”

Book Jacket of “The Underminer.”

Remember Mike Albo and Virginia Heffernan, those crazy English majors who lived way out in New Dorms back in the late ’80s? They were always really into poetry and super obscure stuff like that. Apparently they coined a cute little idea and wrote some 100-page “novel” about it. No, they never lived on the Lawn or anything. Heffernan was in some made-up secret society that went defunct like a year later — that was hilarious when that happened. I think they ended up editing the Virginia Literary Review or whatever before they went to New York to do that starving artist thing.

If Albo (English ’91) and Heffernan (English ’91) could channel the title character of their new book, “The Underminer,” to recap their U.Va. experiences, it would go something like that.

“The Underminer,” published in February by Bloomsbury, reads like a monologue, a transcript of asides that jab the ego and breed self doubt. And it’s all too familiar, as if taken verbatim from that best friend who casually destroys your life, as the subtitle reads.

Albo, a writer and comedic performer, spent the last year writing “The Underminer” with Heffernan, a television critic for The New York Times. They would e-mail bits back and forth, sending corrections back in all capitals. Albo would scribble notes on the subway. He saved messages on his answering machine to study people’s speech patterns and rhythms, especially the overconfident tone people assume when being recorded.

“Once you get your ear to the ground for this language, it’s everywhere,” Albo said.

The authors say they experienced the Underminer before they knew what it was, before they had a word for that encouraging and sporty friend who congratulates you for being so plucky as you trudge through each day of your pathetic life.

Heffernan said she’d come home at the end of the day with a vague feeling of sadness and self-hatred but didn’t know what it stemmed from.

“I couldn’t place it,” she said. “I thought, ‘It couldn’t be my conversation with “Heather” because she’s my friend.’”

But Heffernan clarifies that the Underminer isn’t an explicitly rude person or even malicious; it’s a conversation style that emerges in polite societies that glaze over criticisms.

“In some other cultures,” Albo said, summoning a Croatian accent, “people are more straightforward. They’ll tell you when you’re wrong or when your hair looks bad.”

The Underminer sidesteps it in a passive-aggressive way.

“I think your body looks good, it’s normal,” the book reads. “It’s a normal body. People get too hung up on thinness. You’re more like a typical American.”

Since “The Underminer” was published in February, it has been spotlighted in national media and gained praises from Newsweek, USA Today and NPR, to name a few. When the authors appeared on CNN, the producer started sharing his own stories of being undermined.

“There’s something that makes people vulnerable to talk about it,” Albo said. “The huge irony is that the Underminer, a character that’s all about getting attention, is getting us the most attention we’ve ever had.”

The pointed piece of social satire could fit in the syllabus for a gender course at U.Va., Heffernan said. The narrator of “The Underminer” remains androgynous, and Heffernan thinks it would be interesting to analyze what phrases make the speaker sound either female or male.

But it’s not the gender of the Underminer that makes you ask questions. It’s the casual degrading of your lifestyle, executed with joking familiarity, that makes you question your self worth.

One unnamed person in the authors’ lives has recognized the voice and has taken credit for Albo’s and Heffernan’s successes.

“Your career is due to me,” the Underminer told them, in a mastery of the style.