MOO, Jane Smiley

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MOO, Jane Smiley, Knopf, 1995, ISBN 0-679-42023-1, $24.00

A couple of years ago Jill and I played a game in which we would take turns recommending a book for the other to read out of our respective libraries. We decided to restart this tradition recently, finding that it was a good starting point for discussion of not only books, but also concepts that were conveyed by the books. In a sense, it is not dissimilar to watching a movie or television show together–maybe we could call it our own personal Oprah’s Book Club?

Jill got to pick the opening salvo, and handed me Jane Smiley’s MOO. I love comedy, and books that convey humor are hard to write and hard to find as a reader. After you’ve exhausted P.G. Wodehouse, Thorne Smith, and James Branch Cabell, where do you go? It is always a pleasure to find another book in which an author goes out on a limb for comedy, and even if it doesn’t entirely succeed, it often makes for great reading. Smiley, a past winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and quickly making a name for herself for deeply serious books, has written a winner in MOO. The comedy here is a strange mixture of satire, situation, and salaciousness, all tied together by a marvelous craftswoman who can switch viewpoints at the turn of a page and juggle five plotlines at one time.

MOO is set in a mythical midwestern University, a stereotypical Agriculture and Engineering college that are the mainstays of the feed and breed states. In this college, you have the secretary to the Provost who actually runs the college, only passing on letters or memos that she decides the Provost should see; the Assistant English professor, hoping to make tenure, making the rounds of the Eastern writing workshops and trying desperately to make the requisite number of publications; the new foreign language instructor, a beautiful, dark woman who sometimes claims Costa Rican heritage although she was born and raised in Los Angeles; the boy fresh from the farm, who is happy to find a work-study assignment as the caretaker for an experiment to see how large a pig can grow; a gaggle of girls, gathered together by the vagaries of the University housing office as roommates in the subsidized dorm; and Chairman X and his companion, who most people mistake as his wife since they have lived together for over 20 years and have two children. There’s more, though: the researcher who loves the song-and-dance of getting funding, but is anxious when it comes to actually performing; his live-in, an adjunct instructor at the Vet school (located a few miles from the main campus) in charge of the horse herd; the local farmer who’s got the invention in his barn that will revolutionize agriculture, that is as long as he can keep it from Big Ag and the Government spies; and the Provost’s brother, who has decided that it is time for him to marry, so he picks a likely candidate from among the women at the local church. Although the book is humorous, and sometimes the characters are too, the reality of the situation is closer to home than many of your television situation comedies. Smiley has an incredible way of opening up the characters to you, showing their hopes and fears and foibles, that make them seem like real people.

Academics who don’t mind being the center of the joke and former students who can remember their college days fondly should both find MOO enjoyable and rememberable. Having gone to a similar small University myself (Colorado State), it was like visiting the old stomping grounds where the names had been changed to protect the guilty. Jill liked this book enough that she bought more by Smiley–and I suspect that one of these will be a future choice of hers for me to read.

[Finished December 1996]

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