Performance artist Mike Albo returns to the keypad to vent his alienation
Meet “The Underminer.” You may already know this irresistibly evil human—whose gender is deliberately undetermined—described on the book cover as “the best friend who casually destroys your life.”
Queer author and performance artist Mike Albo, who previously published “Hornito: My Life Lie,” created this noxious character, and claims, in a recent interview, that “the underminer is really one of my closest friends. He’s always been a part of my life. I adore him, but he is one of the worst underminers I have ever known.”
What exactly does the underminer do? Through the course of this short novel—which should be read in one sitting for maximum impact—the title character bests “the victim,” a category that includes the reader, by one-upping him or her through savvy business investments (Maxx Racks), a keen eye for trendspotting (yoga) and celebrity friends (Kurt and Courtney). Meanwhile the poor victim suffers a series of increasingly degrading yet hilarious humiliations, like getting caught in a dust storm without water at the Burning Man festival.
As Albo described his creation, the underminer is “a cockroach of consumerism—he can survive anything. He shape-shifts. Whatever trend is at its height, he’ll be with it. He gets the cool caché of hip-hop circles because he’s part-black; he learns Arabic in two weeks; he’s best friends with an Iraqi.”
It’s enough to cause fits of envy.
The trajectory of the book, which Albo gleefully admitted is a “downward slope, a toilet-bowl flush” is an interesting time capsule of events, from the recession of 1990 through the boom years and from there to he dot.com bust, 9/11 and the war in Iraq. These touchstones give Albo the freedom to comment on American society and specifically what is wrong with it.
“No one knows how to run a trend into the ground like America,” the author noted in a particularly snarky manner.
During an interview, Albo spoke in the underminer’s voice—he termed the tone alternately as “gay accent [with] a little nasal” and “softer, more caring” yet still sinister—when he confessed his real motivations for creating the character and writing the book.
“It was really born out of my frustration with fabulous-ity bullshit,” he said. “To sit around and kvetch about how ‘sell out’ our country had gotten [can be annoying] but I found a voice for different cultural commentary. What is rewarded in our culture made me angry when I sat down to write, and it still does.”
“The Underminer” stems from the author’s performance work, and seeing him play the character––or read from the book––certainly enhances the messages.
In fact, the author almost seems to prefer playing “The Underminer” than having written it.
“I can’t tell you what joy it brings people when I play it on stage,” he said. “It’s kind of therapeutic. It’s like getting out some rage. I’m exposing all of these underhanded ways we are violent to one another. It’s a type of evil that no one’s really admitted to before.”
And while the book is based on the author’s performance, Albo credited his friend Virginia Hefferman, as a co-writer.
“She collaborated on my performance stuff,” he explained “I wrote it all, came up with the narrative, and then I’d give to her, and she’d give me zingers.”
Yet Albo knew better than to steal her ideas without acknowledgement.
“It would be very underminer-y of me not to include her,” he admitted.
The Underminer” seems poised to be a cult novel for the hip and trendy, and Albo fantasized about his book’s success.
“I would love it to become part of the lexicon,” he said dreamily, hoping to coin a lasting phrase on par “Generation X.”
Until then, the author/performance artist is amused by the book’s initial fan base.
“One thing that really turns me on,” he says, “is that people who are reading it are interested in self-help books. ‘The Underminer’ is self-help disguised as a novel.”
Mike Albo reads from “The Underminer” at Barnes and Noble, Astor Place at Broadway on Wednesday, February 16 at 7:30 p.m.