Dear Committee Members
By Julie Schumacher
Anchor Books, 2014
180 Pages, $14.95
Reviewed by Tyler Barton
Dear Discerning Future Readers—
Greetings—this letter recommends Julie Schumacher’s 2014 novel, Dear Committee Members, to your Goodreads to-read shelf, Amazon shopping cart, or Powell’s reusable book tote. It’s certain you have scads of candidates for your next read, but luckily you’ll find that this one smashes through the ceiling of your requisite criteria.
To get it out of the way: Yes, Dear Committee Members is a novel told entirely through Letters of Recommendation. If clever concepts turn you off, if shtick is still an obscenity, well, I’m sorry—this book is one giant shtick. Epistolary novels aren’t new—see Dracula, Herzog, Carrie—and only seem to be multiplying—Super Sad True Love Story, that illuminating twelfth chapter of Goon Squad, Hotels of North America—because readers like a good gimmick (emphasis on good). Let’s be honest: if the idea of a novel told entirely through Letters of Reccomendation written by begrudging, Luddite, past-his-prime English prof. sounds annoying to you, it’s probably because you wish you would have thought of it first—or had the wit, empathy, and whimsy of Schumacher to pull it off with purpose.
Still with me? Beautiful.
Jason T. Fitger is a long time professor in a dysfunctional and disappearing English Department at an underfunded, unknown Midwest University named—Schumacher uses every opportunity to make a joke—Payne. He hasn’t published a novel in years and his current work seems doomed to remain unfinished. His days are, however, spent writing; he writes so many Letters of Recommendation, that it becomes a personal sport/therapy.
Each letter is one chapter, and most follow a similar, three-part format. The intro, in which Fitger will comment briefly on the applicant before condescending to the business/college/program requiring the letter. Grammar, pay, irrelevance—if Fitger finds fault with the institution to which he writes, he’s sure to let them know. The body, where Jason’s history with the applicant is revealed along with details of his own personal, vocational, and professional struggles. Here he also often exposes very human flaws in the applicant. The conclusion, in which Jay will return to the matter at hand by penning a hackneyed but glowing approval of the applicant, before adding one of his ironic sign-offs. These—“With the customary respect and a nod of deference, Jason Fitger”, “Irritated and restless, but not as fractious as I can be, Jay Fitger”, “Speaking the truth despite its drawbacks, I am, Earnestly yours,”—made me laugh aloud more than any other of Shumacher’s comedic devices. Finally, the postscript, where JTF often reaches even more casually toward his audience by referencing rumors, deaths, and personal favors. For example, in a letter to a coworker/ex, he speaks frankly of his first wife (also a coworker): “Fair warning here, Carole: though smooth-spoken and polished, Janet is as cunning as a wolverine.”
Okay, so how could this book be anything more than silly, drawn-out pastiche? (I picture a roomful of bored MFAers dutifully shouting SO WHAT???). Firstly, the insufferable narcissistic Jason T. Fitger is—promise—a complex character. Yes, he’s entertaining, but he’s also inundated by death. Through his seventy-some letters, the reader watches him desperately attempt salvation for everything around him.
- His writing career is dying, if not dead (he can only write about the stuff of his own life, and has already pitifully milked all his failed relationships for literary content).
- His love life has suffered numerous, albeit deserved, deaths.
- The building he works in is literally falling apart.
- His increasingly underfunded department, run by a professor from—wait for it—Economics, and inhabited by insane tenures and dozens of nomadic adjuncts is pushed further and further into the Siberia of the campus.
- His only friends, classmates of his in a renowned writing program, are starting to die.
- His students strictly write apocalyptic sci-fi/horror stories.
- His students and ex-students are facing bleak markets for both art and menial, minimum-wage jobs.
Mid-book, he confesses, “Writing this letter had thoroughly depressed me, but it hasn’t made me less determined to see Pazmentalyi promoted,”(85). It takes a couple chapters and dozens of jokes to glimpse, but Fitger is well-intentioned. He genuinely hopes every student’s application is a success. He genuinely believes in the skills of analysis, empathy, and discernment that the study of English breeds. He genuinely wants his students to receive literary success, even when he dislikes the form of work they’re doing. He will fight every meaningless bureaucratic fight if it offers even the thinnest sliver of hope for Art in America. Meanwhile, he saves the LOR by subtracting the fake and injecting his with truth.
Schumacher, now eight books into her career, is a master of tone and voice. Her narrator is immediately knowable by his diction and syntax. Here’s the opening paragraph, where Fitger begins his main quest of finding funding for his favorite mentee:
Over the past twenty-odd years I’ve recommended god only knows how many talented candidates for the Bentham January residency—that enviable literary oasis in the woods of south Skowhegan: the solitude, the pristine cabins, the artistic comraderie, and those exquisite hand-delivered satchels of apples and cheese…Well, you can scratch all prior nominees and pretenders from your mailing lists. None is as provocative or as promising as Darren Browles.
He’s pedantic, academic, and authorial, but he peppers in conversational asides and contemporary references—a mixed diction that churns his letters into something rare yet steeped in tradition, classic yet flavored with nowness. To wit: phrases like “the era of My Personal Screen” and words like “yclept” can be found within the same paragraph. By using these hundred-dollar vocab words, Shumacher, via Fitger, tries to save dead language.
But the most important feat of tone in the book is how it changes with Fitger’s audience. He loves to talk about himself (which allows the reader is able to piece together his past), but the way he does this changes. When writing to an ex-lover as opposed to Xandu Park RVs, Fitger’s voice doesn’t do a one-eighty, but differs in humanly nuanced ways. “I’m sorry,” he writes to Carole, “I’m putting my ankles and wrists in the stocks and sending you a bushel of overripe tomatoes by campus post.” Schumacher’s prose is something to laugh with and read closely.
With an epistolary framework, especially one that limits only to letters of recommendation, there are bound to be thin spots. It’s tough to feel the movement between chapters of Dear Committee Members, save for the date at the top of the letter. Naturally, the book is short on scene. The sometimes low tension within Dear Committee Members, is due, perhaps to there being too few important events—although I will add that it has a superb climax, shown in an actual move-for-move scene that will forever change the way I feel inside CVS. Furthermore, it’s all Fitger. Although secondary and tertiary characters are consistently detailed and memorable (a professor who pees in bottles, a stoner GA named Gunnar), they rarely have a chance to feel two-dimensional. They can never talk, and their actions are filtered/relayed through Fitger. The reader’s distrust of Fitger’s reliability might aide in imagining what the other characters are actually like, but that doesn’t really do the trick.
Go to this novel for fun commiseration—especially if you’re a higher-Ed lifer. Go to it to laugh but also to hurt a little. Stay for the empathy Fitger gives all the people he acts like he can’t stand, for the empathy Schumacher gives Fitger. You should expect to laugh. What you might not expect is how you leave this quick book with acute pain, and a familiar but non-shticky hope for the future.
Praying you realize any criticisms within stem only from my personal writerly jealousy,
Yours, future reader,