Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book Review: "Dear Committee Members" by Julie Schumacher

You know, it has been a while since I've read a supposedly funny book that actually turns out to be funny, but Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members was great fun. I even laughed out loud in a few spots, and I don't think it's entirely because I was picturing the book as if it were read by a committee member of mine, who tends to write with the same verbose style as Schumacher's narrator.

Jason Fitger is a weary professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University. He was once a writer with some promise—his sensationalized account of his experiences at a famed literary workshop (known as "the Seminar") caught the eye of the then-director, who championed it to a publisher. But his later books never demonstrated the same type of potential, and now he can't get anything published. And his romantic life is in the same decline—he is divorced, although still hung up on his wife, and he tends to bobble any other relationships he enters into, which would be unfortunate even if they weren't with women who work at the university.

All is not rosy at the university, either. The administration has made draconian cuts to the English department, cutting the graduate program and refusing to fund programs. Department instructors are being forced to work in squalor, dodging debris and inhaling construction fumes, as the Economics department, which resides upstairs, is being given more lavish offices. And to top it off, administration has put a sociologist(!) in charge of the English department. What's a guy to do?

Jay spends his days writing letters of recommendation. (Writing, mind you, not filling in the blasted blanks in electronic forms.) He's championingg one of his students for a fellowship at the Seminar, now being run by a former friend (and lover) of Jay's. Jay thinks this student's novel—an updated version of Bartleby called (of all things) Accountant in a Bordello, but the student can't seem to catch a break, which Jay thinks is because everyone is punishing the student to get back at him for slights both real and imagined. As the student's fortunes become more and more bleak, Jay writes recommendations everywhere to try and find an opportunity—even an RV park.

But those letters aren't the only ones he writes. He recommends current students for work-study and off-campus jobs; he recommends colleagues for fellowships, awards, and other positions both within and outside the university; he recommends former students for employment opportunities and graduate school; and in some cases, he recommends students he barely knows for opportunities he doesn't understand. But don't mistake his letter-writing for endorsements; he isn't afraid to tell the truth about those on whose behalf he's writing, so often the letters are more passive-aggressive than positive.

What makes this book so amusing is Jay's verbose use of language (he is a writer, after all) and his need to correct or castigate those to whom he is writing if he feels it necessary. Here is one excerpt from a letter he is writing to (believe it or not) recommend a colleague for a position at another university:

"Let's consider the facts: Carole is comfortably installed at a research university—dysfunctional, yes; second tier, without question—but we do have a modest reputation here at Payne. Shepardville, on the other hand, is a third-tier private college teetering at the edge of a potato field and is still lightly infused with the tropical flavor of offbeat fundamentalism propagated by its millionaire founder, a white-collar criminal who is currently—correct me if I'm wrong—atoning for multiple financial missteps in the Big House in Texas. You've reinvented yourselves and gone secular, but clearly, in various pockets and odd recesses of the campus, glassy-eyed recidivists and fanatics are still screaming hosannas, denying the basic tenets of science, and using a whetstone to sharpen their teeth."

Jay is more than a pompous blowhard, however. He knows how people feel about him and he doesn't care, but there are those about whom he truly cares about. That's what gives Dear Committee Members its depth, making it more than just a farcical epistolary novel, and adding shade to its humor. I really enjoyed this book, and while a book full of letters chockablock with SAT words might not appeal to everyone, it's great fun and a great read.

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