Ben Greenman Soft Skull Press, 155 pages, $12.95.

Have you heard of the Underground Literary Alliance? They’re an American organization of zinesters with wonderfully improbable names like King Wenclas and Wild Bill Blackolive and Urban Hermitt and (my favourite) Emerson Dameron. They hate the whole Paris Review-McSweeney’s-New Yorker crowd of brainy MFA grads who they believe have hijacked the American literary world and flown it to some postmodern location far from the concerns and experiences of Real Americans.

They have attempted to publicize their concerns (endearingly laid out in a manifesto! You can read it online at and are, slowly, trying to overthrow the Eggersstocracy through acts of sabotage at literary events in and around New York. In January, 2003, they disrupted a reading by Ben Greenman and others. In the words of the ULA website, their members “cornered Ben Greenman about his tree story,” and demanded the author explain its relevance. The night ended with broken beer bottles, a scuffle on the sidewalk and bad feelings all around.

And now we have Greenman’s Superworse in hand, enabling us to adjudicate the ongoing dispute for ourselves. How perfect an example is this book of the type of thing the ULA hates? Let us count the ways: 1) Greenman lives in Brooklyn; 2) where he works as an editor at The New Yorker; 3) he’s been published in The Paris Review and frequently in McSweeney’s; 4) the latter company having publishedSuperbad, the hardcover collection of stories; 5) of which this, ahem, “novel” is a “remix”; and, 6) this book contains “Sometree/
Anytree?,” the story that was the specific subject of ULA protest.

Let’s get to the tree story first. One tree is growing next to another tree, who it becomes sweet on and soon becomes acquainted with. “Sometimes a trunk is just a trunk, and branches are just branches, but sometimes a trunk has a perfect thickness, and branches taper just right, and then there are the leaves, so exquisitely arranged along each branchlet, with such lovely fall colortion, that it makes me want to hire someone to come out with an axe and chop me down so I can fall near the roots of the other tree and lay there forever.” They begin to grow (literally) intertwined, and then begin to grow apart. The narrator tree is first heartbroken, then resigned, then consoled that the other tree is still near.

The metaphor in this funny but beautiful story is not exactly opaque, and anyone who needs its relevance explained to him is either astoundingly stupid or has never been in a relationship with another person. Or both.

And yet Greenman goes out of his way to explain his metaphors and devices and intentions in Superworse. He does this by way of a fictional editor, Laurence Onge, a comically serious and self-promoting figure who comments, in a foreword, midword and afterword, as well as in annotations to individual stories, on the meaning and significance and structural balance of the book’s elements.

This is where the book’s claim to be a novel resides, in the tension and relationship between the mischievous and intentionally elitist author and the serious, ever-overexplaining editor. And tempted as I was at times to throw the book against a wall because of the cloying cleverness of it all (a fictional editor’s comments on the author’s use of a fictional editor as a device — as an introduction to another introduction by another fictional editor, for example), in the end it works.

This dichotomy — the struggle between the playful and the serious, the mischievous and the heartbreaking — plays out not just in the book’s metastructure but in most of the stories themselves. Superman’s comical villain, Mr. Mxyztplk, laments a love lost and a disaster caused because of his mischief. A set of real and fictional characters comment on a disastrous romance. When it works, we want to laugh at these characters and shout at them and give them a warm hug all at once. And Greenman makes it work in an astonishing number of ways, writing Russian short stories, ad-copy blurbs, nature stories, poems, interviews and all manner of other things.

As the appendix, “Sad and High-Kicking,” makes plain, this happy-sad duality is not just a comment on Greenman’s work, or on the structure of fiction, or on art. It is the double-edged sword with which all of life is fought. And that’s something the ULA doesn’t seem to get. So who’s irrelevant?

Originally published in Eye Weekly on March 18, 2004.