It is the fall of 1989, and while the Communist regimes of Europe are imploding, history repeats itself as farce at a large state university in the American Midwest. In Jane Smiley’s ninth book, her first since winning the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres, she turns from tragedy—King Lear transposed to contemporary Iowa—to travesty, in an academic satire as broad as the rump of the seven-hundred-pound pig who is a crucial figure in the novel’s action. Smiley, who lives in Ames, Iowa, and teaches at Iowa State University, avoids naming the institutional setting for her fiction, referring to it solely by its popular designation, Moo U. It is a rural campus where agronomy and horticulture are popular disciplines and students, faculty, administrators, and alumni are prolific in producing manure. In seventy brief, snappy chapters, Moo offers up a portrait of contemporary academe as a theater for horseplay.
At the center of the Moo U. campus is an old, abandoned abattoir called “Old Meats.” Locked away within the darkened recesses of Old Meats is Earl Butz, a grotesquely bloated white Landrace boar, “the secret hog at the center of the university.” Despite the bovine metaphor of the book’s title, Moo is a porcine parable. It suggests some dim, essential link between a research pig bred to swill and swell and a publicly funded university. Moo might well be read within the context of widespread, persistent attacks on higher education as a costly haven for coddled radicals, charlatans, and incompetents, except that Smiley reserves her most scathing caricature for Moo U.’s nemesis Orville T. Early, the governor who exults in slashing the school’s budget. He explains,
The trouble is, they don’t run it like an investment over there, with the students as customers, because that’s what they are, you know. Now they run it like welfare, but I’m telling you, if they won’t turn it around themselves, we’ve got to turn it around for them. This administration believes strongly in education.
Everyone else in Moo also believes in education, but the visions are varied enough to provide the reader with a lesson in the delusions of community and a suggestion that scholarly institutions are not the only ones that invoke high purpose to justify low deeds. Smiley employs an aggregate of styles and documents—catalog copy, news releases, course assignments, interior monologues—to expose her Mooers to gentle ridicule. Moo follows the rhythms of a single, eventful academic year, but the novel is less intent on deploying plot than on revealing character, or rather caricature. In aggregate, the contradictory profiles that constitute the book’s brief chapters make up an anatomy of eccentricity; at the flaccid core of Smiley’s academic carnival is a pig’s snout.
Among the novel’s more notable figures is Lionel Gift, the highest-paid faculty member at Moo U. A distinguished professor of economics and a lecturer who is much admired, especially by himself, Gift is a fervent evangelist of market capitalism.
His first principle was that all men, not excluding himself, had an insatiable desire for consumer goods, and that it was no coincidence that what all men had an insatiable desire for was known as “goods,” for goods were good, which was why all men had an insatiable desire for them.
Like Governor Early, Gift regards students as “customers,” and he employs his economic theories to rationalize selfish careerism within the university and dubious entrepreneurial activities beyond it. He colludes with Arlen Martin, a jug-eared Texas billionaire who is not a little reminiscent of H. Ross Perot, in an avaricious scheme to extract gold from Costa Rica, though it means destruction of the Western Hemisphere’s final virgin cloud forest.
Opposing Gift’s machinations is the head of the horticulture department, an unreconstructed 1960’s radical known to all as “Chairman X.” A vegetarian and a Buddhist, a scourge of bourgeois convention who, after twenty years and four children together, has neglected to marry his companion Beth, Chairman X is outraged by Gift’s contempt for any values that might restrain his rapacity. He publicizes embarrassing confidential memorandums between Gift and Martin and organizes strident demonstrations against the economics professor. Opposed to Gift in more subtle ways is Mrs. Loraine Walker, a veteran secretary who knows all the campus secrets and, from her perch in the provost’s office, wields more genuine power than anyone else at Moo U.
(The entire section is 1897 words.)