Light, intelligent, witty reading: ‘Dear Committee Members’ by Julie Schumacker

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacker Doubleday 2014

“I’m glad we have different last names” was the reaction of Julie Schumacker’s  husband when he read the first draft of this book.

The prudent chap was no doubt worried about the hostages to fortune in this neat, funny novel of decaying campus life. I think Schumacker and her husband are both American academics, and the characterisation of Jay Fitger, a cynical and verbosely angry English professor in a decaying Midwest university is not flattering.

I don’t know if letters of recommendation (LOR) are a thing in New Zealand academia  – I kind of hope the Kiwi informality means people just pick up a phone.

Or, more likely, work out who they know in common  – ‘cos there’s bound to be a few people – and call them.

Anyway, this is a short but very funny novel, made up mostly of letters of recommendation, or letters and emails about letters of recommendation.

“Epistolatory Novels” have been around since the start of the novel as an art form – Ol’ Sam Richardson kicked the genre off around about the time of the War of Jenkins’ Ear. They’re a good way to do comedy: they can reveal so much character. They also give the smart alecky folks who read campus novels a chance to smirk knowingly.

Which is what happens here – but as the book goes on the sardonic distance between the reader and Fitger gradually closes. He isn’t just a generator Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 10.06.32 amof witty, knowing and disconsolate lines.

Fitger is bored and frustrated, mostly: his own career as a novelist has fizzled and his marriage has busted up after having an affair: unfortunately both his ex and the woman he had the disastrous affair with are now people he needs to beg for professional and personal favours, and many of these letters show him doing just that.

His department, English, has had its funding frozen if not shrunk and much of the time he is fighting a rearguard action, and petty turf and status wars, against more favoured faculties (Economics, which has inherited some of English’’s resources, is a particular enemy.

Yes, as well as being an epistolatory novel, it is also one of that more recent genre, the comic campus novel, something which is more of an English than an American speciality, and there is something of a middle aged, disappointed and jaded trans-Atlantic ‘Lucky Jim’ about Fitger.

Much of the time he is trying to stave off boredom and a crippling sense of futility: a former pupil seeking preferment at a supermarket is recommended as a writer who had submitted a story

about an inebriated man who tumbles into a café and surfaces form an alcoholic stupor to find that a tentacled monster –  a sort of fanged and copiously salivating octopus, if memory serves – is gnawing through the flesh of his lower legs, the monster’s spittle burbling ever closer to the victim’s groin….
Whether punctuality and an enthusiasm for flesh-eating cephalopods are the main attributes of the ideal Wexler employee I have no idea, but Mr Leszczynski is an affable young man, reliable in his habits, and reasonably bright.
You might start him off in produce, rather than seafood or meats.”

Attempts to recommend the department’s surly IT “help” desk staffer for a job grow in intensity, and I think we’ve all dealt with the type who” clearly suffers under the burden of our collective ignorance. Mr Napp demonstrates  all the winsome ebullience one expects these days from a young person inclined to socialise with machines rather than human beings….whatever I can do to assist in your – or any other firms – hiring of Mr Napp I will accomplish with resolution and zeal.”

Those excerpts give the book’s flavour…but as the story develops Fitger shows his heart – well, some of it – in highly guarded fashion.

It’s well worth a read.

Recommended, in fact.