Performance artist Mike Albo and his partner, Virginia Heffernan, just published a comic novel about a classic New York phenomenon: a pseudo-friend—the underminer of the book’s title—whose backhanded compliments destroy the hero’s self-confidence. Boris Kachka met with the writers for some undermining conversation.
So what exactly is an Underminer?
Mike Albo: It’s someone you let into your life a long time ago who knows everything about you and knows how to dismantle your psychology—but it’s too late to split off from him or her.
It’s a cute idea. Did you just put it together in one day?
Virginia Heffernan: It was mostly in an afternoon. And we came back to it after dinner.
Does having a lot of friends in media help in promotion?
V.H.: Okay, stop!
M.A.: Your undermining comments are so natural, I can’t tell if you’re real or not.
Well, I guess there’s no real answer to that. What’s the worst way someone can undermine you?
M.A.: The worst way is about my love life, when someone says, “Maybe you’re just attracting the wrong sorts of people.” Like your soul is damaged. What am I supposed to do, go eat some sort of plant?
Was it hard to keep that one joke going?
V.H.: Nope, we never got tired of it. We’re like Chevy Chase with Fletch.
I’ve heard that the underminer in the book was originally male.
M.A.: I’ve always tried to keep it gender-neutral. The very first time we came up with the idea, I was living with Virginia, and she told me a female friend of hers had just undermined her: “She told me, ‘You know, I don’t really want to be in this war between—’ ”
V.H.: “Between you and Sofia and those guys.” I didn’t realize that all these forces were marshaled against me! And she was passing it off as being really careful. So I just cried myself to sleep that night.
Are there other underminers?
V.H.: We think the underminer voice floats through all of us, including Mike and me. We wrote down things that we said to other people, too.
So if you were self-help gurus, how would you advise people to shut off the underminer?
V.H.: One thing the underminer does is set up plausible deniability. I don’t think confrontations work. They’d say they’re kidding. Sometimes in the book the victim resists, and it only tightens the knot.
I’ve heard one underminer takes credit for Mike’s original sketch.
What’s his name?
M.A.: I’m not going to say. But he has said, “Wow, this book is doing really well. I guess you kind of owe your career to me.