(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Moo explores the life of a Midwestern university, affectionately called “Moo U” because of its agricultural orientation. The university is under pressure to change with the times—it faces budget cuts, new courses are crowding out the traditional fields, and both faculty and staff are diversifying. Author Jane Smiley takes a scattered approach to her topic. Rather than focus on a single plot line or primary set of characters, she intertwines many stories of the university’s life, mixing perspectives of faculty, students, administrators, and staff.

The primary pressure on Moo U is financial. Facing budget cuts of several million dollars, the administration cuts programs and steps up fund-raising efforts, including grant-seeking by the administration and individual faculty members. Monetary pressures force an alliance with TransNationalAmerica Corporation, run by Arlen Martin, a corporate financier who engages in various questionable practices. Martin insinuates himself, through various corporate entities, into numerous projects at Moo U. He funds research into false pregnancy in cows that would stimulate milk production, combined with cloning to produce herds of the best milk producers; a museum of the history of chicken production that would save Morgantown Hall, a former abattoir affectionately known as “Old Meats”; and a study of the effects of gold mining under a virgin cloud forest in Costa Rica. When the backlash from the last of those projects hits, TransNational faces pressures of its own and withdraws all funding, putting the university at even greater risk.

Various story lines show how people at Moo U react to changes. Chairman X, head of the horticulture department and an avowed communist, fears loss of his prized gardens. He becomes incensed when he hears of the plan to mine gold in Costa Rica...

(The entire section is 755 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 893 words.)