Strictly for the underachiever

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 April, 1999, 12:00am

WILLIAM is a serious underachiever. In fact, he underachieves so effortlessly that he revels in it. It is, he would be the first to admit, almost a source of pride.

His one rather lame claim to achieving - definitely more luck than judgment - is that he was born seven minutes ahead of his identical twin, Clive.

After that, it is all downhill. Slow to lift his head, unable to 'perform' when being toilet-trained, he develops eczema. It is as if he is allergic to life.

One observer, looking into the pram and seeing Clive, says: 'I'm in love.' Then she looks at William and asks: 'Are they . . . twins?' But the joy of this short book and its greatest asset is the era in which it is set. This is the late 1960s, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with parents who embrace a quasi-Bohemian philosophy, play Fleetwood Mac and drink red wine out of mugs.

Thus, there is the wonderfully drawn scene in which the children are introduced to nudity. Except that William will not oblige by peeling off his layers, much to Clive's bemusement.

Their mother, whose living room is hung with a poster of Hieronymus Bosch's medieval masterpiece The Garden Of Earthly Delights, confides: 'William's sublimated his natural urge to be more grown-up. He's in the middle of what psychoanalysts call a latency period.' Another delightfully surreal interlude is when the twins, at the grand old age of 12, are sent to Dr Sibyl Strauss for psychoanalysis.

William, as always, underachieves.

Strauss asks whether he has ever had an erection when dreaming about his mother, but he says no.

Clive, on the other hand, emerges from the office wiping his eyes with a handkerchief.

After a number of sessions, the parents convene a meeting around the dinner table to discuss the twins' progress.

Their mother announces: 'Clive has been working out some issues in his dream life which can be a frightening thing.' She then leans forward to William and says '. . . masturbation isn't dirty, or wrong, or unnatural. In moderation, of course.' His father adds: 'Clive is a regular masturbator and I'm sure he could give you some tips.' Oh, the embarrassment of some parents.

Ironically, when the pair are tested by a developmental psychologist William's scores are equal to, if not better than those of Clive.

In his diary, William concludes that 'the underachiever is entrusted with a master key to opportunity's home office, and misplaces it'.

He also remarks that if the underachiever were a mixed drink, he would be a dry martini, one part obscurity (vermouth) and three parts unhappiness (gin).

After attending a British-style boarding school, William moves to a second-rate college in New York before joining a cult in San Francisco. Clive, predictably, is training to be a lawyer.

This we learn from Anastas' rambling text, which, at times, is as wishy- washy as William's parents' outlook on life.

Yet for all its comic asides, An Underachiever's Diary is as bleak as its white dust jacket. The title is tacked on to the bottom as if the designer had momentarily stirred from the stifling confines of their limbo and remembered to include it.

It helps, of course, that William is endearing. But, by the end, the reader, unsurprisingly, reaches the stage where they have gone past caring.

Best blame it on the parents . . .

An Underachiever's Diary by Benjamin Anastas The Dial Press US$15.95



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