This brief novel is written entirely in Letters of Recommendation – the first, and quite likely the last of its kind. All of the letters have the same author: Jason T. Fitger, professor of Creative and English at an American university and author of four novels, the first of which appears to have been a moderate critical and commercial success, while each of the succeeding ones tanked decisively. The latter might be enough reason for him to be bitter, but in addition to this, the English department he is working for has been continuously gutted of funds by the administration and is now stuck on the first floor of a building whose second floor is undergoing a luxury renovation to house the economy department whose members all have conveniently fled to other buildings, leaving the members of the English department to the noise and asbestos-saturated air of the ongoing construction works.
Fitger is a man of many words, and so we learn quite about him in the course of this novel; as part of the fun of reading it consists in slowly piecing together an image of his character and his history by way of the numerous asides in his LORs (of which he claims to have written about 1300 – he also is somewhat prone to hyperbole) I won’t be saying any more about him, except that he is not entirely likeable but does possess some redeeming features and also is not the most reliable of narrators. He makes for a very companionable however, and it’s highly enjoyable to listen to his voice as he cajoles, pleads and threatens his way through an astonishing variety of recommendation letters.
Occasionally while reading this, I found myself what someone more interested in letters of recommendation as a possible literary form rather than for their comedy value might have made of this, and imagined Nabokov writing a cross between Pnin and Pale Fire. But it would of course be highly unfair to criticize Julie Schumacher for not accomplishing what she did not set out to do; all the more so as she succeeds admirably in what she actually did try to do here. Dear Committee Members is a very clever, very witty and very, very funny satire about the seedy underbelly of academia: its bureaucracy. Anybody who has had even a cursory experience of university administration will feel very familiar with this; I’ve never been to a university in the US myself, but recognised many things from the time I spend (very long ago) at a German one, so I can safely say that the phenomenon is universal. And even if you’ve never been anywhere near anything academic, the bureaucracy Schumann skewers on her pointed pen is not confined to universities but pretty much universal. In short, Dear Committee Members makes for a highly enjoyable read for everyone. And if you happen to be still searching for that ideal Christmas present for anyone working in the humanities – look no further, get them this novel and they will thank you for it.