Creative writing teachers often encourage students to write about what they know, to take inspiration from their own personal experience. There is reasonable reason to fear perhaps that Julie Schumacher, faculty member of the Creative Writing Programme at the University of Minnesota may have taken her own advice a little too literally, when one learns that her new novel takes as its subject the tribulations and grumbles of….. a creative writing teacher at a university. Upon learning that said work is an epistolary novel consisting entirely of this crotchety tutor’s letters of recommendation to various organisations and departments over the course of a year the heart may sink still further. Such anxieties evaporate however within just a few pages of what soon reveals itself as a blisteringly funny and unexpectedly poignant portrait a strange man we can only hope is not too similar to the author, for her own sake.
Jason Fitger is a tutor at the end of his tether, jaded to the point of perdition by the dysfunctional and underfunded department in which he works, and the sclerotic bureaucracy of the university in which it sits. He is pained still more by the sprawling wreck of his love life, surrounded as he is by former wives and lovers (unfortunately for him, still colleagues), and the apparent death of his writing career. In writing letters of recommendation (LOR) for students to perspective employers and course tutors, and LOR for colleagues to various arcane and byzantine academic sinecures, directorships and regulatory fiefdoms, Fitger takes the opportunity to blast his world-weary bile over the world. Romantically nostalgic for his glory days as a young student and writer, he lambasts a modern age which he sees as contemptuous of any learning and scholarship not explicitly designed to make a quick buck, as most often demonstrated in his bitter envy of the funding the Economics Faculty (“in their jewel encrusted palanquins”) receives in comparison with his own (dubbed “Engli-h” due to the state of its sign.)
Fitger’s is the voice of both a world-class pedant and a frustrated litterateur, exasperated at the banality of the tasks to which it is repeatedly forced to, and so both expertly phrased and bitterly mordant as a result (ie. reorganisations of unflavoured faculties such as his own are being “gathered together in small ethnic clumps, presumably in preparations for future pogroms.”) Much of the humour is forced politeness of the LOR format, forcing his fury into passive aggression, and all the more finely honed and sardonic for that. On a LOR for IT support worker Duffy Napp –
“…he clearly suffers under the burden of our collective ignorance. Mr Napp demonstrates all the winning ebullience one expects these days from those more inclined to socialise with machines than with human beings. His approach to problem solving is characterised by sullenness punctuated by occasional brief bouts of good judgement. Whatever I can do to assist in your – or any other firm’s – hiring of Mr Napp I will accomplish with resolution and zeal.”
In the letters (and they are usually letters rather than emails “I prefer to send letters of recommendation via the US Postal Service, now considered by many to be as quaint as muttonchop whiskers and the butter churn”) Fitger is revealed as a man out of time, at impotent war with the modern world, his mind honed to a point of learning which no-one else appreciates or cares for. From the realms of jaded academics from novels past there are shades of Chip from Franzen’s The Corrections and Amis’s Lucky Jim, but from wider fiction there’s a touch of Ignatius J Reilly and Dr Gregory House MD too; the quixotic crusade against modernity in the one, the misanthropic contempt in the dunces and institutions around him in the other.
As the narrative unfurls Fitger emerges as an intriguing figure, arrogant in his outlook, rude in his everyday dealings and borderline abusive in his personal relationships, yet nevertheless genuinely concerned for his students, and passionate about the concepts of learning and literature, concepts he sees as being trodden underfoot by the twin heels of bureaucracy and commerce (- a none-sarcastic recommendation of one colleague “he cares about his work, and others’ work, as opposed to ‘success.’”) His efforts to promote the work and secure the ongoing study of one particular troubled student Darren Browles (who is working on “a modern update of Herman Melville’s Bartleby entitled Accountant in a Bordello” ) are a particular passion, and one in which he pursues with typically bloody-minded zeal. It is this aspect of the story which takes the story to a rather unexpectedly poignant conclusion, and reveals the compassionate soul at Fitger’s heart.
You don’t have to work in a university to appreciate the pinpoint dissections of the petty rivalries, bickering and infighting which beset any large organisation, and the withering portraits of colleagues and students painted by both Fitger and Schuhmacher are exquisitely realised. And for me at least, Fitger emerges as a strangely admirable character, a cantankerous foe of cant we more mild-mannered souls could perhaps learn from.
Any Cop?: Wiser, finer and funnier than it first appears, Dear Committee Members succeeds on a surprising number of levels; satire of academia and officialdom, exploration of mid-life ennui, a dissection of the process of writing itself. A slender volume emerges as a tiny triumph and muted joy.