Readers of Julie Schumacher’s hilarious 2014 novel in letters and/or memos, “Dear Committee Members,” will need little encouragement to pick up this uproarious sequel. But those who have not had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Jason (Jay) Fitger will have no trouble catching up on his misadventures as the newly appointed chairman of the beleaguered English Department at Payne University, an undistinguished Midwestern school whose name lends itself to puns (orientation slogan: GET READY FOR PAYNE).
This semester, Jay is teaching a freshman class on “The Literature of Apocalypse,” and there’s a whiff of the end time about his department, which is either barbarically hot or unbearably cold, held together by duct tape and a prickly administrative assistant who harbors weird rescued animals in her office.
One floor up from this “grim and seamy underworld” known for “discord and dysfunction going back forty years” is the bright and shiny, newly renovated Department of Economics, where the masterful Prof. Roland Gladwell plots the further shrinkage and ultimate demise of Jay’s “feeble, fast-declining department … a parasitic discipline by definition.”
If Jay could just get his faculty members to sign off on a Statement of Vision, the English Department might have some hope of survival — a proposition impossibly complicated by the ancient Shakespeare specialist’s refusal to ratify any proposal that doesn’t include a Shakespeare requirement for English majors.
The contretemps somehow gets magnified into a cause on campus and beyond (Save Our Shakespeare!), exploited by the nefarious Roland, who has managed to weasel his way into the chairmanship of a committee tasked with judging which departments merit the school’s resources.
O brave new world!
There is, in fact, an earnest, home-schooled freshman — a Miranda-cum-Candide — so sheltered in her religious circle that even the small world of Payne is marvelously eye-opening, if daunting, and her experience, a not quite sentimental education, makes the real business of learning a poignant counterpoint to the academic agitation and departmental machinations that make up much of the plot.
Like the best campus comedies, “The Shakespeare Requirement” satirizes all manner of academic pieties while maintaining a soft spot for the embattled humanist. Roland Gladwell and his Econ cohort may be “winning” in the worldly sense, but it’s the well-intentioned bumblers and misguided strivers of the liberal arts who have the winning ways in the novel’s world of hearts and minds.
Although much of this is simply funny, what works best, unsurprisingly, grows out of the familiar hopes and longing, frustration and grievances, that only superficially have to do with campus life. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune may be zingers, but finally there’s something to be said for the subtle humor tinged with pathos that hums through Schumacher’s book: It’s not academic, not by a long shot.
Ellen Akins is a writer and teacher of writing in Wisconsin; ellenakins.com.
The Shakespeare Requirement
By: Julie Schumacher.
Publisher: Doubleday, 308 pages, $25.95.
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