11 August 2014

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Summary from Goodreads:
Finally, a novel that puts the "pissed" back into "epistolary."

Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters, while one floor above them the Economics Department is getting lavishly remodeled offices. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His star (he thinks) student can't catch a break with his brilliant (he thinks) work Accountant in a Bordello, based on Melville's Bartleby.

In short, his life is a tale of woe, and the vehicle this droll and inventive novel uses to tell that tale is a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies. We recommend Dear Committee Members to you in the strongest possible terms.

Jason Fitger writes a lot of letters.  Letters of recommendation, letters of complaint, emails of the persuasive variety.  He writes letters for a writing student for whom Fitger seems to be the only one with visions of promising output.  He writes letters for one of those students for whom everything she touches - from law school to medical school to writing retreats - turns to gold.  He writes letters to the dean/chair/university president complaining about dwindling resources, fellow faculty members, and the din of construction.  You sympathize with the sheer number of letters.

But as humans go, he's also a dick.  He praises an institution in one paragraph and then undercuts with snide comments in the next.  He calls a colleague colorful names in one letter and in the next he's asking that colleague for a favor.  He's mined his personal life for fodder to mock in his novels and burned nearly every, last bridge (his writing career/reputation is currently non-existent).  His social filters are non-existent.

This short, epistolary novel is wry and uncomfortable.  We laugh at Fitger's tone while knowing all the while that his wording would likely get him fired in the real world (or maybe not; tenured faculty can have a lot of rope with which to hang themselves).  We sympathize with the letter recipients, even if we don't get to read their responses (if any - Fitgers letters might be the ones consigned immediately to the circular filing cabinet).

Dear Committee Members is a quick read, perfect for those who are looking for something similar to Amis's Lucky Jim.

Dear FTC: I received access to a digital review copy via the publisher.

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