I wasn't expecting this book. I'm not sure why, but I thought this was going to be a light, silly little book about Midwestern academia, sort of Straight Man for Iowa. Needless to say, this was my first Jane Smiley novel, and I picked it up because it was about a college, and because it's called Moo.
What a delightfully complex, layered book. I want to write a paper on this book, though I have no idea what it would be about. Somehow, I have to write a review, and words are flying out my Midwestern window and into the ether where they will hopefully emerge as something other than a blank slate. I have no idea how to adequately capture this book because my words will not do it justice.
Moo is not a hard book, though it has a lot going on. The characters are wonderfully distinct, and each time the story adopts one of their voices, it changes drastically in tone and cadence. The chapters told from the perspective of an insecure eighteen year-old who pretends to be from the city sound completely different from the resident communist agitator lamenting the fall of the Soviet Union. Some chapters are formed from newspaper clippings or essays, and there is one character that Smiley tells the audience very little about; instead, she allows him to speak for himself by showing his creative writing projects, all of which are based on the people around him, and show how he sees the world.
Also startling: it is very rare that I read a book and am struck by its time period. However, Moo is a staunchly "pre-Internet" book. If a character doesn't read that morning's New York Times (preferring the Chicago Tribune instead), then he or she has missed major events, because newspapers used to have different stories in them. It wasn't until 2000 or so that major newspapers started featuring the same twelve news stories, because the Internet enabled them to yank everything off of the AP newsfeed. The spread of information is much slower in Moo than it would be in a book set within the last ten years. I find this fascinating.
Moo takes place at an under-funded agricultural university in the Midwest (it's implied that Moo U is in Iowa, but never actually stated), and the focus doesn't stay with any one character. Instead, Smiley introduces her entire cast gradually, borrowing their perspectives as they relate to the fate of the university. From Bob, the farm kid whose work study project is to take care of Earl, the hog, to Mary, whose Chicago South Side upbringing has left her ill-prepared for her three pastel-wearing, soft-speaking, occasionally whining and politically maneuvering roommates. Cecelia, the Spanish teacher from LA, spends the entire novel freezing and wondering why in the world she moved to the Midwest, where everyone is quiet, restrained, and completely refusing to talk about the very things that make her life interesting.
A highly competent secretary runs the university from the Provost's office while a chicken nugget magnate attempts to further his own agenda through well-distributed university grants. The Dean and Provost, twins, still live together in their fifties and pursue their very different opinions on love and marriage. The foremost Costa Rican economy expert in the United States embraces the market as a religion and sexual preference while his students struggle through the difference between their professor's theoretical economics and their own experiences with practical economics, leaving them afraid of banks, markets, and foreclosure on their farms. A man known only as Chairman X struggles against the capitalist majority while the woman everyone thinks is his wife tries to figure out her purpose in the world.
This is all bound up in a mining scheme, threats of botulism, desperate grabs for promotions and grant money, pledging sororities, creative writing classes, literary allusions, attempts to fit in, horrible cafeteria food, university politics, and homework.
This is a book about college from all angles, capturing students both lazy and ambitious, prejudiced and multi-ethnic. It is funny and wise, but also made me wince at times because I worked in academia for several years. Moo has captured the best and worst of academia, from the asinine rationing of necessary office supplies (while paying the tab for lavish lunches for administrators) to students taking their lessons to heart.
Also, there are a few gems for lit majors. There is a secretary named William Bartle, who prefers not to
do anything. I laughed aloud.
I'm kind of sad, though. This book sat on my shelf for a year before I finally picked it up. While I'm glad that I got to read it now, I may have appreciated it just as much when actually working for a Midwestern college, facing budget cuts, rationing office supplies, and desperately hoping for some grants to make ends meet.