Smiley uses a wide variety of characters to exemplify university life, spreading her focus among faculty, administrators, students, and staff members. This approach allows her to show the diversity of university life, but it also results in her characters being less than fully realized. She gives each a few traits or attitudes rather than an entire personality. Rather than develop and evolve, they simply change; the illustration more resembles a series of snapshots than a motion picture.
The administration of Moo U guides the action of the novel. Provost Ivar Harstad seems to be at the helm, but his secretary, Loraine Walker, actually steers the ship. The interaction of these two shows Smiley’s conception of university leadership, with the real power held and used by those involved in day-to-day operations. Harstad’s directions for fund-raising and grant-seeking shape faculty members’ actions, and Walker’s dealings allow avenues for action outside official channels.
Faculty members receive most of the attention in the omniscient narration. Smiley deftly mixes and contrasts various types. Ardent communist and Buddhist Chairman X is matched against traditional Nils Harstad. Latina Cecelia Sanchez, from Los Angeles, faces culture shock in the Midwest, disturbed by the cold, the quiet, and the smiles that never lead to anything. She moves in her relationships from the good-looking but self-serving writer Timothy Monahan to Chairman X, who...
(The entire section is 540 words.)