Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 893
Jane Smiley’s exuberant satire of academe, Moo, showcases an antic side of her imagination that had been overshadowed by the melancholy series of family sagas that had catapulted her into literary fame over the preceding decade. With its publication, as reviewer Alison Lurie noted, Smiley cemented her stature as “the Balzac of the late twentieth century American Midwest” (though she herself might have preferred comparison to Charles Dickens, on whom she authored in 2002 a well-received critical essay for the Penguin Lives series).
Set in Iowa in academic year 1989-1990, the novel maps the personal and professional machinations of those associated with the fictional land-grant “Moo University.” Smiley deftly captures the three-ring-circus quality of a large cast of characters exploiting, seducing, and sabotaging one another in a fin de siècle collision of agrarian traditionalism, postindustrial consumer capitalism, and postmodern intellectual contingency. The question “What is a university?” both literally and figuratively speaks the novel’s central concern: How does disinterested and meaningful intellectual inquiry survive in a culture ever more devoted to a gospel of greed (the decade of the 1980’s serving as Smiley’s shorthand for that dramatic cooptation of democratic values)? Far from an ivory tower, at Smiley’s Moo U the broader currents of American life—politics, economics, education, religion, and bureacracy—converge in ways that produce immediate impacts on the “real world” beyond its walls.
Smiley herself refers to the structure of Moo, with its myriad subplots and couplings, as “an ecosystem,” a metaphor underscoring the interdependency of its various constituencies in a hivelike structure of intricate hierarchies and elaborately ritualized behaviors. The main plot complication of the narrative derives from a competing mechanistic metaphor—the hostile Governor Early’s savaging of the university budget with the intent of redefining education’s “investment” value in terms of its stock market variant: enhanced profit taking through maximized production, downsized efficiencies, and “customer satisfaction” replacing the “deconstructionist” anarchy that he believes to be running the show.
The resultant forced march into the lap of corporatization thus focuses the novel’s most unambiguous critique. Economist Lionel Gift (Moo U’s top-paid faculty member) leads the pack to this money trough, forging self-serving partnerships with shady Texas tycoon Arlen Martin, whose multinational empire employs Gift’s expertise and contacts to further a plan to mine the last virgin rain forest in Costa Rica for the gold beneath its canopy.
Not far behind Gift are agricultural scientists such as Dean Jelinek, who is determined to breed milk cows tricked into endless production through endlessly induced false pregnancies. In the consummate fusion of intellectual passion and species-driven hubris, Professor Bo Jones pours considerable industry funding into the care and feeding of Earl Butz, a seven-hundred-pound pure white Landrace boar being raised to plumb the essence of “hogness”: It is no coincidence that Earl is named for the Nixon-era agriculture secretary credited with escalating the calorie consumption of the American populace to keep up with skyrocketing farm output. Smiley shamelessly anthropomorphizes Earl, imbuing him with a subjectivity more complicated than even his devoted undergraduate keeper Bob Carlson suspects (a preview of the equine-centered storytelling of Horse Heaven and A Year at the Races). In his efforts to fathom his profoundly circumscribed world, Earl serves as a satiric embodiment of both the grotesque voracity of contemporary life (extolled elsewhere as the law of insatiability) and the poignant costs to the planet’s other species of the human will to mastery.
Yet human will is not unidirectional in its ambitions. As many reviewers have noted, Moo’s depictions of human folly are generally tempered by compassion for the human neediness that spawns them and are countered by faith in the occasional capacity of the well intentioned to mobilize, albeit clumsily, against the worst injustices engulfing them. Smiley has called Moo the “most personal” of her fictions in the deliberateness of its plotted movement toward recovered ethical balance. Eventually, the loose chain of academic narcissists who learn about Gift’s collusion with Martin find varying avenues to expose and ultimately stop it, offering a “model for how well-meaning people can act together for a larger interest.”
Moreover, the university itself escapes its financial noose through the deus ex machina of a lone farmer-tinkerer, Loren Stroop, whose years of isolated invention produce a contraption he leaves to the agricultural extension office that for him had differentiated the university among all other modern bureaucracies, however badly the institution had made good on that potential. The obvious artifice of this resolution nonetheless underscores what critic Catherine Stimpson has noted as the true crisis of the modern multiversity: “it has made too many promises to too many constituencies.”
Ultimately, however, Moo takes refuge from these weightier matters in a comic trajectory in which satiric deflation gives way to romantic restoration, updated for the late twentieth century: Two weddings of established middle-aged partners ensue, one involving the wildest remaining campus radical, “Chairman X” of the Horticultural Department, and his longtime mate (as well as mother of his four children) in the aftermath of his tempestuous intrafaculty affair; the other joining the staid bachelor Provost Ivar Harstad and the epicurean modern languages professor Helen Levy. All of this unfolds (as does Gift’s demise) under the bemused and godlike eye of Mrs. Walker, assistant to the provost and true power broker of Moo U.