For many years, academic comedies have looked as fresh as an old tweed jacket. I’m not complaining. I owe my whole career to academic comedies. My first job was as an English professor at a small Midwestern college, which is essentially the plot of every academic comedy ever written. I was highly unqualified, desperately anxious and fancied myself a kind of teetotaling Lucky Jim. Desperate to escape the rising tide of five-paragraph essays about the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, I eventually struck upon the ridiculous idea of reviewing books. And the first review I ever sold was on Richard Russo’s “Straight Man,” now a 20-year-old classic of the academic comedy genre.
We former English majors could have happily gone on reading those books till the end of time, but in 2014, Julie Schumacher made that well-worn literary garment look downright hip again. With “Dear Committee Members,” she became the first woman to win the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Her book included all the requisite elements — second-rate college, inane administration, exasperated English professor — but the entire novel was a series of recommendation letters written by Jason Fitger, a highly vexed and acerbic teacher. That epistolary form sounds impossibly restrictive, but Fitger’s letters to colleagues, agents, friends and managers gradually created a whole world and a bright, thwarted man trying to survive within it.
School won’t start for another month, but Fitger is now back in a sequel called “The Shakespeare Requirement,” which gave me a chance to call up Schumacher at her home in St. Paul, Minn., and fawn like a first-semester freshman. Originally, she had no plans to continue the story of Fitger’s travails at Payne University. “But ‘Dear Committee Members’ was such a slim little thing,” she says. “The form was so narrow that I didn’t get a chance to go play with Fitger the way I wanted to. So after about a year, I found myself thinking, ‘What would it be like for him to chair the department?’ ”
“The Shakespeare Requirement” provides the hilarious answer to that question.
The epistolary structure of her previous novel is gone — this is a straight narrative delivered with acrid wit — but Fitger is still here at its center, just as irritated and harried as ever. Against his will, he’s been named chair of the ungovernable English department, “a funhouse of dysfunctional characters.” (One is obsessed with miniature donkeys; another imitates Emily Brontë; a third wears a 15-pound necklace made of roofing nails.) They are all Olympians in the sport of passive aggression.
The plot is light on incident, high on frustration: To continue the English department’s paltry funding, Fitger must somehow corral his colleagues into composing a unanimous Statement of Vision, one of those vacuous documents that deans around the world devise to drive professors mad. Fitger just wants to get a working computer, have the heat turned on in the building and fix whatever’s leaking in the men’s room, but his ancient colleague Professor Cassovan insists that the department’s Statement of Vision include a requirement that every English major take a course in Shakespeare. Naturally, the feminist professor objects, the modernist professor balks, etc. As Shakespeare would say, “So quick bright things come to confusion.”
Schumacher notes that it’s no wonder satirists return again and again to the campus setting to find fodder for their wit. “The academy is filled with eccentric people,” she says, “because they spend years studying some obscure thing and then you toss them into a committee and say, ‘Everybody get along.’ That in itself is made for comedy. It’s a weird little world.”
Indeed, anyone who’s taught will recognize these characters, tightly bound in their arcane knowledge and rancid grievances. As a professor of creative writing at the University of Minnesota, Schumacher must surely run the risk of pricking her colleagues with her sendups of academic pomposity, but she insists that she consciously veered away from anyone she knows.
“I swear I was not making use of any real people!” she says with a laugh. “The closest I came to using any real people is me — as Fitger. He’s like an evil little alter ego, which is part of what made him so satisfying.”
Fitger is delightfully acerbic and self-destructive in these pages, raging against the dean (“the human windsock”) and especially his arch-nemesis, Dr. Roland Gladwell, chair of the lavishly funded economics department. Bolstered by his performance metrics and his outside donors, Gladwell is determined to eradicate the feeble English department that persists like some tenacious mold in the basement of the Econ building.
That clash of cultures — mammon vs. art — burns through this novel, which provides a wry commentary on the plight of the arts in our mercantile era. Desperate for enrollment, the college must cater ever more cravenly to its lazy, politically correct students who grow increasingly allergic to emotional triggers — and hard work. As Fitger struggles to organize his department colleagues, fend off the rapacious economists and stall the spineless administrators, he also endures a host of personal crises, starting with the fact that his writing career is effectively moribund and he’s still in love with his ex-wife . . . who’s dating the dean.
Enraged by the deprivations of his underfunded department and the tedious paperwork of being its chairman, Fitger vacillates between ineffective wheedling and razor-edged sarcasm. “Some people consider him irredeemable,” Schumacher says, “but I see him as a kind of Quixotic figure. He’s entirely lacking in diplomatic skills, but in his strange heart he means well.”
He does mean well, and eventually he even manages to do well. And along the way, we get a very funny lesson on the frustrations and machinations of academic life.
Enrollment is now open. Don’t skip this class.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.On Friday, Aug. 17, at 7 p.m., Julie Schumacher will be at Politics and Prose at Union Market, 1270 5th St. NE, Washington.
By Julie Schumacher
Doubleday. 320 pp. $25.95