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(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 and mounts a protest, complete with mimeographed leaflets and a demonstration, at which he physically assaults Nils Harstad, the twin brother of Provost Ivar Harstad and the dean of agricultural extension. He blames agricultural outreach to less developed countries for destroying their way of life, and he takes personally the battle between agriculture and horticulture, training his students as revolutionaries. He falls in love, or at least lust, with Cecelia Sanchez, a beautiful language instructor from Los Angeles with a tenuous family tie to Costa Rica that she exaggerates for his benefit.

Other characters are less overt in their protests. Bo Jones hides a hog named Earl Butz in the otherwise unused Old Meats building, intending to study the “natural” life of a hog by letting Earl eat to his heart’s content and live out his life, rather than being slaughtered. Jones surreptitiously spends nearly a quarter of a million dollars on his experiment. When it appears that his research may be discovered, he leaves for Asia in an effort to find wild hogs that he can study in their natural habitat. Another example is Loraine Walker, secretary to provost Ivar Harstad. She moves money from the athletic budget to her favored departments and programs, as well as filtering the information that reaches the provost and making deals all across the campus. She arranges to leak the report about the Costa Rican mining project.

Smiley also treats personal relationships. A selected few students show the attitudes and goals that students bring to the university and how those change. Diane, whose goal is to join a sorority to make connections and refine her social skills, pairs up with Bob Carlson, a shy, unrefined farm boy who interrupts dates with her to tend to Earl, the hog. Mary, a black student from Chicago, experiences discrimination but decides to stay, adapting to her white roommates. Gary Olson fixates on Lydia, the girlfriend of his roommate Lyle, using her as the subject of his assignments for a class in fiction and ruminating about the future she faces without him in her life.

Faculty and staff members also form new partnerships...

(The entire section is 1,648 words.)