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Frenemy Territory

NEW YORK — Some seem to know, as if by instinct, exactly what to say to make others feel small. Their weapon of choice? The backhanded compliment, as in, “Wow! You’re wearing last season’s Prada. You must have a lot of...

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NEW YORK — Some seem to know, as if by instinct, exactly what to say to make others feel small. Their weapon of choice? The backhanded compliment, as in, “Wow! You’re wearing last season’s Prada. You must have a lot of self-confidence! That’s so cool!’”

In tribute to all those one-uppers and undercutters, Mike Albo and his friend, Virginia Heffernan, have written “The Underminer.” It’s an “unconventional” novel (oops, was that undermining?), told in monologue from the perspective of the Underminer about someone who just ends up with the wrong set of successful friends from whom he can’t escape. He runs into them at galleries, Kinko’s, even the Condé Nast cafeteria, and the “nice” things they say always make him feel suicidal. A sampling: “Were you invited to the screening or were you just invited to the after party?” We all know the type.

“[Virginia and I] just kept hearing these vaguely insulting phrases,” recalls Albo, a performance artist-turned-novelist-turned fashion writer at Cargo who ended up incorporating the character into his stage act almost 10 years ago. Albo’s agent suggested he turn the Underminer into a book. The story unfolds over the course of a decade, from the recession of the early Nineties to the dot-com boom and on past 9/11.

“You wouldn’t think that the Underminer could survive all that, but somehow, he does,” Albo says. “He’s kind of like Mr. Magoo.” Because the narrative is in the second person, the book is meant to be a sort of horror novel. “The reader is the victim.”

Albo compares writing the book to therapy, and the self-help crowd has been asking him how to deal with “toxic friends.” His usual (half-joking) response is: “You can be, like, ‘There’s this book you need to read.’” He doesn’t think he’ll tire of the stories of people who’ve been undermined, or the way people start conversations with him by saying, “I don’t mean to be undermining, but….”

And there appear to be underminers wherever one goes. After a performance upstate, several audience members thought he was talking about an underminer in their midst. “Do you know Jonah?” they asked. “He’ll always try to one-up you.”
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