KR Reviews

On The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher

New York, NY: Doubleday, 2018. 320 pages. $25.95.

For every person who agrees with something you take as gospel, there are at least two who don’t, and a decent number who believe something diametrically opposed. The years of Trump, #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter have brought this lack of agreement to the fore, thanks largely to a number of electronic devices that keep us abreast of every takedown in our political wrestling matches. While norms have always been challenged, and sometimes toppled, the way we view and participate in these clashes has changed dramatically. It’s an understatement to say these outlets don’t offer the kind of platform that allows consensus to build. They serve instead as visual CB radios, where any remotely controversial statement quickly devolves into offended parties, insular thinking, and that great digital “you’re nothing to me”: blocking. It’s like we’re right on top of these conversations all the time, cheering for our side or offering jabs of our own, with good faith almost always the first casualty. In her 2018 novel The Shakespeare Requirement, Julie Schumacher renders similar levels of conflict but to more harmonious results. The novel depicts an American university campus as a teapot in which a cultural tempest brews, with the English department’s Shakespeare requirement the thing most likely to get blown away.

No one doubts the reverence most English professors have for the Bard, but at Schumacher’s fictitious Payne University, a modern college run more like a corporation, the problem of quantifying the value of liberal arts has English requirements like Shakespeare classes on the chopping block. The mere suggestion of losing them causes tumult in the tweed and elbow-patched sect, and it becomes English chair Jason T. Fitger’s job to quell dissent and lead them to a more agreeable place—in other words, to do what the internet fails at all the time. For himself, Fitger has plenty of his own problems to deal with. He has yet to move on from his divorce, and attempts to take over his department by the more profitable economics department are an open secret. Compounding his issues is the fact that any budgetary adjustment in his favor requires departmental consensus, and there’s some question as to whether Fitger has what it takes to herd professorial cats. This isn’t getting folks to like your Facebook group. It’s moving the needle on the central tenants people hold dear.

Words of genuine value are rare enough in a mode like the novel, but in the hands of someone like Schumacher, there’s a chance. What separates her rendering from your typical Twitter scrum is her orchestration of Fitger, who manages to realize that success or failure depends on getting past his issues and reaching out to those around him. His colleagues, “unwilling to serve as chair themselves—having held their breath, plugged their noses, and voted for him,” are ready to clamor for their own needs. Shakespeare scholar Dennis Cassovan finds “a curriculum lacking foundational works . . . a hummock of flesh without skeleton; it was shapeless, absurd.” Most distressing, Dean Philip Hinckler—wooer of Fitger’s ex-wife Janet—has final say over any of Fitger’s budgetary requests. Everyone has reason not to give anyone else the time of day, and Schumacher skillfully navigates her protagonist to his eventual acceptance of the search for common ground.

It’s tempting to argue that Schumacher has the advantage of creating her world whole cloth, with characters that eventually have to do her bidding, and this makes it easier to create a coalition when compared to the headless chickens of real life. True enough, but in this fictional world, the characters intrinsically understand that they eventually have to deal with one another. None of them locks themselves away and hopes contrary agendas disappear. In at least this sense, these characters live in a world more realistic than many of our own. In the book, nobody gets unfriended.

Schumacher also uses the more patient form of the novel to offer in-depth renderings of characters. This grants them the time needed to become more likable and emotionally resonant. Janet, working for the university’s law school, recounts a moment of deep connection with her ex-husband:

She remembered lying in bed with Jay two decades before, both of them reading the same book (an Irish novel; she didn’t remember the author), turning the pages at the same time in order to synchronize their experience, each of them listening for the intake of breath that signaled, in the other, trepidation or delight or surprise. It was probably her most erotic memory.

Romance, eroticism, books with actual pages—it’s like 1974 all over again. With the more nuanced path the novel form allows, Schumacher offers windows into the hearts of her characters, and we’re granted enough space to entertain empathy for them. This is an effective moment like many in the book, and their sum testifies to her tale as a healthier alternative to the fervor we churn up online.

Medium aside, some words are more beautiful, more true—just plain better—than others, and Schumacher reveals her verbal alacrity through the dispatching of tropes in ways that convey the specific and universal simultaneously. For example, “Who would look forward to hearing from Hinckler? His speeches were generally reminiscent of a pair of shoes thumping around in a dryer.” In another, Professor Franklin Kentrell’s “conversational style was a slow-motion list of autobiographical tidbits, his mind like a kitten with a ball of yarn.” Lastly, Fitger—on thinking that Janet’s recent trip to the Caribbean with Hinckler might have led to a marriage proposal: “If Hinckler bought her a ring it would probably be large: diamonds like mushrooms erupting from a hollow log.” Each reinforces the sense of Schumacher as a skilled comedic portrayer, one prepared to render human complexities in a single sentence or phrase. With each, the author earns the reader’s trust; you’re more willing to listen even if you don’t agree with everything that’s being said. It’s a subtle negotiation, but a necessary one if we expect anything but bad faith from those who disagree with us. Win or lose, respect the game.

Nothing is sacred—not even an English department’s Shakespeare requirement—unless enough of us want it to be. While everyone has a compass pointing to an individual due north, we are also undoubtedly going somewhere together. There are processes in place to bring our collective will to fruition—to make x and not y the moral center of our communities—but right now it’s hard to get anyone to look in the same direction, much less agree on what they see. Thankfully, we still have novels like The Shakespeare Requirement to remind us that there’s this thing called excellence, and sometimes people actually attain it.

Art Edwards
Art Edwards’s reviews have or will appear in The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, Kenyon Review, Salon, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, Barrelhouse, and The Rumpus, among many others.