As the latest in a seemingly relentless series of winter storms bore down on us last week, I plucked The Forsyte Saga off my shelf (where it has been ripening for a couple of years now): it seemed like the perfect time had come for something so long and (I hoped) absorbing. Bad call, as it turns out, not because anything’s wrong with The Forsyte Saga (I very much enjoyed the 30 or so pages I managed to read) but because between one thing and another I had difficulty settling down to it. It’s re-shelved for now: maybe the really perfect time for it will be a long lazy summer day, when my nerves aren’t jangling — or my muscles aching from shoveling yet another mess of snow.
A couple of other books kept me happily distracted this weekend, though. The first of them was Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, which I signed out on impulse when it popped up on the library’s list of recent e-book acquisitions. I’d heard a bit about it here and there when it was newer, and people seemed to like it a lot, but it sounded pretty gimmicky (a whole novel written as letters of recommendation? really?) so I hadn’t chased it down. Well, it is gimmicky, I suppose, but it’s also painfully funny — I can’t remember the last time I laughed out loud so often reading anything. The narrator, Jason Fitger, is a bitter, dispirited professor of English and Creative Writing. There’s a layer of the novel that is straight-up snark of the kind all academics will recognize and many (shamefacedly or not) have participated in:
This letter recommends Melanie deRueda for admission to the law school on the well-heeled side of this campus. I’ve known Ms. deRueda for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes. This young woman is certainly tenacious, if that’s what you’re looking for.
There are some hilarious send-ups, also, of fads in creative writing:
This letter is intended to bolster the application to Wexler Foods of my former student John Leszczynski, who completed the Junion/Senior Creative Writing Workshop three months ago. Mr. Leszczynski received a final grade of B, primarily on the basis of an eleven-page short story about an inebriated man who tumbles into a cave and surfaces from an alcoholic stupor to find that a tentacled monster … is gnawing through the flesh of his lower legs, the monster’s spittle burbling ever closer to the victim’s groin. . . . Whether punctuality and an enthusiasm for flesh-eating cephalopods are the main attributes of the ideal Wexler employee I have no idea. . . You might start him off in produce, rather than seafood or meats.
Fitger is not a nice man, and in some respects he’s even quite creepy. But his acidity is in part a symptom of the failings of the system he works in; underlying and giving depth to the novel’s humor is an indictment of tendencies in contemporary academia that, again, all academics will recognize, from the devaluation of the university’s intellectual mission to the exploitation of part-time faculty and the demoralization of the rapidly diminishing number of their tenured colleagues. Asked by his new department chair to nominate someone for the position of director of graduate studies, Fitger explains why pickings will be slim:
Why? First, because more than a third of our faculty now consists of temporary (adjunct) instructors who creep into the building under cover of darkness to teach their graveyard shifts of freshman comp; they are not eligible to vote or to serve. Second, because the remaining two-thirds of the faculty, bearing the scars of disenfranchisement and long-term abuse, are busy tending to personal grudges like scraps of carrion on which they gnaw in the gloom of their offices.
Unsympathetic curmudgeon as Fitger mostly is, too, in his own way he’s fighting for the right and the good, especially in his relentless (if spectacularly undiplomatic and ineffective) championing of the one student he truly believes deserves every good opportunity. In a way Dear Committee Members is quite a grim book, and it doesn’t end with any false notes of redemption, but by the end I thought it was something more and better than simply cynical.
I also read Tana French’s The Secret Place, the latest in her Dublin Murder Squad series. I think French is really good, though I noted with Broken Harbour that I had become a bit tired of “the melodrama and the self-consciously brooding interiority, [and] the heavy-handed revelations.” I also got a bit impatient with The Secret Place, which seemed to me to be overwritten, not so much with melodrama but with metaphor: intangibles are always swirling, radiating, crystallizing, shimmering, around the four teenaged girls who are at the heart of the mystery. I appreciated that French wanted the novel to be more than a whodunit, that she’s interested in the way the teenage years are times of intense self-consciousness but also self-fashioning, that the girls’ identities are in flux as they try to figure out who they are, or, more to the point, who they are going to be. I just got a bit irritable with passages insisting on it: “They lie still and feel the world change shape around them and inside them, feel the boundaries set solid; feel the wild left outside, to prowl perimeters till it thins into something imagined, something forgotten.”
I found the novel’s emphasis on a particularly gendered kind of menace very interesting: one of the crucial elements of the crime is a pact of resistance the girls make — a resolution to keep “guys” at a distance, thus setting themselves apart from many of the emotional and social pressures of their boarding school. The novel alternates between their experience and the investigation, and there too we see the difficulty of sexual politics, especially through the character of Antoinette Conway, who has alienated her murder squad colleagues by turning on one of them when he “smacks her arse.” “If she’d just made this much effort to fit in,” says another male cop, warning off (he thinks) our narrator, who is working the new case with Conway; “But she didn’t, and now the rest of the squad thinks she’s an uppity ball-breaking humorless bitch.” Refusing to fit in is exactly the hallmark of the four girls at the center of the case too.
I ended up uncomfortable, though, with the way French develops this premise. The popular girls sneer at the others for being “weird,” even calling them “witches”: at first, this seems like an indictment of the speakers, and there’s no doubt that the members popular clique are worse than the ones they mistrust: shallow, judgmental, cruel, manipulative. But French actually plays with the witchcraft possibility, giving the outsiders uncanny powers that seem entirely real to them, though one of them eventually reflects that “someday she’ll believe — one hundred percent believe, take for granted — that it was all their imagination.” A lot of the imagery around these four also turns their close friendship into something uncanny: what are we to make of that? Is this just French’s way of exploring the total immersion of friendship at a time when individual identities are porous enough to allow the group to take on its own character? It’s certainly not a nostalgic vision of youth, though: if anything, the teenage world the novel gives us is dystopian, a seething morass of hormones and resentments and lies and anxieties. That atmosphere, too, ended up making me uncomfortable: I thought the motif of resistance would take us in a feminist direction, but at times I thought the opposite was true, that the novel was perpetuating and even relying on, for its own purposes of suspense, the worst misogynistic clichés about teenaged girls. I’d love to know if anyone else had the same slightly queasy response.