A satire on university life, describing the rackets and the intellectual dishonesty that goes on. The setting is the U of Moo where research into the destruction of rain forests is tailored to suit the corporation funding the project. By the author of A Thousand Acres.
Sometimes "Moo" relies on university in-jokes, but mostly Smiley is dealing with human nature. After laughing at each character and enjoying the twists and turns of the plot, readers may also find themselves reflected in this large and forgiving mirror of modern life.
"Moo University lies in the heart of the Midwest, a distinguished institution devoted to the art and science of agriculture. Here, in an atmosphere rife with devious plots and lusty liaisons, Chairman X of the Horticulture Department harbors a secret fantasy to kill the dean; Mrs. Walker, the provost's right hand, knows where all the bodies are buried; and Bob Carlson, a sophomore, feeds and maintains his only friend: a hog named Earl Butz. ... Jane Smiley offers us a wickedly funny comedy that is also a darkly poignant slice of life."
Pretty much on target.
Fast forward to 2017, and I'm re-reading [Moo] because I recommended it for our fledging book club at work. Given that I work at a large state university (although one that is not focused on agricultural sciences) I expected the satire to be even sharper than my original reading. And it was, but parts of it hit a little too close to the bone to be really funny — the mindless drive for private research grants where the size of a donor's bank account is more important than the content of their character, the endless promoting of administrators far beyond their capabilities, and especially the lack of support from the state government for its flagship of higher education — had me wincing more than guffawing.
Smiley attended the University of Iowa's famed Writers' Workshop, and she taught for a number of years at Iowa State University, the real Moo U., and her insider knowledge shows on every page. She knows just where to stick the knife to skewer the university archetypes where it hurts, and I don't think any department is left unscathed. If I have one criticism, it's the sheer size of this novel — its girth gives ole Earl Butz a run for his money. And in her eagerness to leave no campus corner unridiculed, she created an enormous cast of characters who were sometimes hard to keep straight, especially since I read the book over the course of a month. But overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this look at the absurdities of life in higher education, and impressed that it didn't really feel dated at all.
Maybe if I worked at a university, I might care about this sort of satirizing, but I want my comedy to have rather more laughs per minute than this provided, and beyond that, I really had no interest in the lives of the characters. Even I am Charlotte Simmons was more interesting.
Now that I've mentioned both of those books, it comes to me that there were hogs featured in both. Hum.
Anyway, Moo is a slightly hyperbolic portrait of a Midwestern state university. Living in a state university town, though not in the Midwest, and being a student myself, I had a good chuckle over a lot of it.
I don't really have much analysis to offer this time around, but I will say that it was rather well written, and I recommend it. Try it if you are looking for mild humor that isn't dumb, and perhaps if you need to let off a little steam from your own university experiences. It seems a bit long at first, but the short chapters break it up well.
And, there's a happy ending.
Style: Literary narrative. Too many characters introduced too quickly, took 100 pages to get all of them differentiated and recognizable by name. Characters were interesting and she kept them distinct in their behavior and thoughts.
NOTES: see book
I couldn't have been more wrong. I so could not wait to finish the book not because I was enjoying, but because I simply wanted to be done with it. Ironically, I didn't connect with any of the characters; they irritated me. And I found that there were so many characters that I often couldn't keep them straight, especially the four girls sharing a room that Smiley spent some time introducing us to and delving into their insecurities. It wasn't just those girls though; it was even the faculty members that I couldn't keep straight, so I found myself flipping back through the book and re-reading pages where the characters were introduced just to straighten them out. After doing that several times, I began writing the characters down to keep them straight. But even that didn't help!
Perhaps it was because some of the characters were so bland that they simply weren't memorable.
I was expecting quirky and neurotic characters; after all, many a mid-western college is filled with just those kinds of characters. I should know, I've been colleagues with enough of them. (I'm pretty sure I might have been labeled as quirky and perhaps even neurotic by some of my fellow colleagues, but that is another story altogether.)
I found myself wanted to simply quit reading, but I plowed on and FINALLY finished.
So, why doesn't the book have a lower star rating?
Well, frankly, the writing was good. Some of Smiley's descriptions of small-town college life were spot on, especially here laying out of the financial finagling that can occur with financing and budget cuts and trying to get grand monies. She also had some great descriptions of faculty meetings and the machinations that occur not only within the meetings but behind the scenes as everyone positions for power (i.e. tenure).
I just wish the book had been more engaging as a whole. If found myself wondering how I would write this review because as I sat down to write it, I found myself thinking "so, what exactly was that book really about" because not too much of it stuck with me in the end.
Similarly, I liked the farcical tone (similar to I Am Charlotte Simmons), but felt that Smiley didn't take it far enough. It seems like there can be no middle ground when dealing with farce, and Smiley tried to find one, grounding some situations is realism, while piling on ridiculous coincidence so as to get to the finale where everything comes together.
It's not as though this is a terrible book, and there were parts I enjoyed immensely. Smiley does a wonderful job of capturing certain snapshots of the college experience, and when she hits one of those moments, the book roars to life. But in between those moments, I had to struggle to remain interested and contextualized.