by Matthew Roberson
Red Flag Press, 2022
Reviewed by Gage Saylor
The fourth novel from Matthew Roberson, Interim follows Rob Roy as he navigates the temporary role of Associate Dean for the College of Arts and Humanities at STATE, the Midwestern university where Rob teaches English. STATE is a university both everywhere and nowhere, which Roberson grounds in a general specific to tackle the bloated, self-serving bureaucracy of college administration. Interim mines humor from every crevice of academic drudgery and highlights the absurdity and inefficacy that happens behind office doors.
When called to a 7:30 a.m. meeting for the OAOACC (which is canceled without warning), Rob Roy is rightfully frustrated yet equally unsurprised. “Anything was allowed, he decided, when you made the rules, and that was ostensibly the whole idea of administration—to figure out what worked best and make it so. Too bad, Rob thought, that administrators were usually focused on what worked best for them,” Roberson writes (30). Steve Klütz, head of the Online Academic Organizational Affairs Coordination Committee 3.0, is a specter who haunts the novel, unavailable by email or by phone, absent from meetings, whose office is always empty or has moved to a different building across campus. Klütz is one of the novel’s many antagonists, all of whom deserve a hearty chuckle for their names alone, whether it’s Dean Dean, Dean Eileen, or Bob Babaganoosh.
To call the novel Kafka-esque wouldn’t be wrong, but it wouldn’t quite be correct either; the inner workings of academia and its byzantine structure of power are rather obvious: these people are supremely egotistical and eager to “ooze up the ladder” by any means necessary. Some aspire to higher roles within STATE, some are willing to plop down at any university that will have them (while receiving a pay bump, of course), and some, most, just want to complain. A poignant subplot concerns the mysterious drip in Dr. Harris’s office. Rob, charged with investigating the online curriculum of each department, is ensnared in the banal troubles of people like Dr. Harris, who has a leak in his office but is unwilling to do anything to fix it. Harris sits in his office all day, every day. He doesn’t want to be interrupted. He refuses to switch offices no matter how enticing the offer. All Dr. Harris wants to do is complain, even tracking down Rob in the bathroom to update him on the leak. Much like academia, there is a clear problem to be solved but an endless list of self-imposed hurdles that foreclose any solution.
The most enthralling aspect of the novel is the tightrope act that Rob must walk in working alongside administrators of all stripes. He chews over the right course of action amidst a broken chain of communication. Most conversations happen on a subtextual level, where a single yes or no betrays a deep level of disdain, secret plotting, or something else entirely. Roberson’s satiric prose is the byproduct of a brain thoroughly warped by internal documents, emails, meetings, committees, and academic gossip; it’s also a byproduct of an educator who can recognize these problems but is helpless to solve them.
“First thing the next morning, Rob asked Daphne when he was due at DAC. He couldn’t bring himself to ask what the acronym stood for, because, he guessed, she wouldn’t know, meaning she would have to ask Carol, who would rattle off a full title followed by an explanation of its purpose and do so in such a way as to suggest that it was something everyone at STATE should already know, now and forever, amen, and Daphne would be chastened, and Rob would feel stupid, and neither of them needed that.” (18)
Throughout the novel, mired in departmental and administrative inter-personal politics, Rob must decipher the abbreviations (and purposes) of these committees, paralyzed and unable to answer the questions that need to be answered, always one (or several) steps behind the administrators in the ranks above him who are driven solely by their careerist motivations.
Pushed to the margins, quite literally, are Rob’s family. In certain chapters of this brisk one hundred and twenty-two-page novel, two different stories appear concurrently on the page. A much smaller column runs along the outer edge of the main plot, his family brushed aside by his time-consuming role as Associate Dean. We meet Rob’s wife Amy who works as a practice patient at the medical school and feigns various illnesses to help med students. We meet Rob’s daughter Emily who runs for class president at her middle school after being bullied. We meet his son Warren, a gamer perpetually in his room and competing in online video games. If there’s something lacking in Interim, it’s how these margin stories are presented, without any indication on how to read them in a novel that’s otherwise quite linear and straightforward. This can be interpreted as an intentional choice to align the reader with Rob, but it may also cause inadvertent confusion and frustration along the way.
An undercurrent of Interim is the rise of online learning in all its strengths and drawbacks. For some, online learning is the way forward, a means to give access to students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to further their education. But, for most, it’s an empty-hearted cudgel, a means to increase STATE’s bottom line, a political talking point to curry favor within the university and rise up the ranks of academia.
Terrifically funny (for us) and equal parts frustrating (for Rob), Interim skewers higher administration and considers how little of the university system still considers the classroom. Roberson presents a satire of the banal inner-workings of Deans and committees and subcommittees, rooted in the self-absorbed ladder climbing of administrators. There’s no singular villain with a dastardly plan to reconfigure the university, no intricate conspiracy of corruption at STATE. Instead, we have the everyday evil of administrators concerned only with themselves, indifferent to the students they’re allegedly hired to serve. Much like higher administration, Interim provides no solution to this problem; if anything, it concludes there is no solution. But, the novel does offer a piercing and humorous insight into the worldview of those who shape our university systems.