Ben Greenman — Superworse

If there is one thing you could say about this slowly aging, psychedelically dented, slightly cynical romantic, it’s that I likes me some metafiction. When Dave Eggers and his crew started up McSweeney’s, I thought I had died and gone to a well-lighted, non-denominational heaven (which for some reason, looked a lot like Portland).

Author Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and apparently indulges his non-monocled side writing for indie cred publications like McSweeney’s and Nerve. His 2004 novel, Superworse, is supposedly a paperback “remix” of his 2001 hardback effort, Superbad. It’s hard to know to what extent this is true as the novel itself is a Gordian knot of self-reference and too-clever-by-half literary winks and nods. Just the way I like ’em.

Without giving too much away, the conceit of Superworse is that an old instructor of Greenman’s, one Laurence Onge, is asked to edit the original novel for the soft cover release by Soft Skull Press. Onge is a bit of a megalomaniac and sees references to his history with the author under every well-turned phrase. Onge had gone as far to impose a series of Greenman’s musical numbers onto the earlier version of the book, which have been removed here “at the request of the author.”

When Greenman quits shuffling the cards and playing with the intricate structure of the 19 chapters of the book, he writes a good short story. Pieces like the twice-removed western, The Theft of a Knife, or the 13th century Florintine political drama, No Friend of Mine, show Greenman’s gift for set and setting, as well as psychological abstraction. Even the more traditionally structured stories in Superworse all leave the reader with a faint sense of unease. Nothing in Greenman’s stories is ever really resolved; we are only seeing as much of the drama as the author thinks we need to see.

The feeling of vertigo is muted in shorter, McSweenyesque, sketches like, Notes On Revising Last Night’s Dream, and the superlative, What 100 People, Real, and Fake, Believe about Dolores, which masterfully maps the rise and fall of a relationship through short observations from friends, historical and literary figures, and Superman, who simply believes “that the underwear she wore was the same as the underwear that Lois Lane wore.”

To illustrate the extent that Greenman, or Onge, or Greenman/Onge has gone to tie all this together, the first nine chapters and the last nine are separated by a pivotal 10th chapter entitled Notes to a Paper You Wouldn’t Understand in which a series of footnotes thematically echo their corresponding chapters while they ostensibly relate minutiae about an absent piece about … well, who really cares—you get the idea. If this all sounds like your cup of mud, well, I’ll see you at the bar.

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