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The Way We Live Now

Moo

by Jane Smiley
Knopf, 414 pp., $24.00

At the center of Moo stands Earl Butz, a pig. He is literally at the center, the subject of a secret experiment being conducted in a building called Old Meats, once the scene of classes in slaughtering, now an abandoned wreck in the geographical heart of a huge, Midwestern agricultural university affectionately called Moo U. The point of the experiment is to observe what happens when a pig’s life is pure; when a hog fulfills its essential nature, when, uninterrupted, it can do what it has been bred to do, which is: eat. From his clandestine, luxurious pen, Earl Butz selflessly serves science while all around him swirls the life of a university.

One of Smiley’s characters, a cranky old townie, “saw the university as a set of one-way streets in the middle of town that sometimes were confusing, and always snarled traffic. When he used to drive more, he would come home perennially surprised—’I don’t know what they’re doing down there, but it took me twenty minutes to get through.”’

Smiley does know what they’re doing down there. So do we. The race for tenure and sex and grants and love and grades and enlightenment—we’ve read academic novels before. We have enjoyed the amusing discrepancy between the spiritual aspirations of those who still absurdly cling to spiritual aspirations and the bureaucratic pettiness and institutional banality of the frame-work within which they absurdly cling, and finally cease, even more absurdly, to cling. The great novelists of the genre, sly like David Lodge, raucous and bitter like Kingsley Amis, or scornful like Mary McCarthy, have long recognized that the academic novel is, almost by definition, satiric. As a metaphor for the intrinsic corruption of the modern university, not to mention society at large, a pig is about as crudely satirical as you can get. But, incredibly, Moo is not a satire. Smiley subverts satire, making it sweeter, and ultimately more pointed. She has written a generous and, therefore, daring book.

In Pictures from an Institution, Randall Jarrell was able to transcend the academic novel by simply ignoring it, writing a comedy with no plot at all beyond his own pleasure in language and humanity itself. With Moo, Jane Smiley has transformed the genre by embracing a different tradition altogether. Ostensibly an academic comedy, Moo is really a social comedy. Smiley, in this incarnation, resembles not Amis or Lodge at all, but Trollope himself, an American Trollope, Trollope of the flat, philistine heartland. Jane Smiley has created what modern novel readers have until now been able only to dream about, that elusive, seemingly impossible thing: a fresh, literary, modern, twentieth-century nineteenth-century novel.

Moo is composed as a kind of screwball family tree radiating from the fat white hog. The story of Earl Butz involves Dr. Bo, hog professor, and Bob, one of his students brought up on a farm, who feeds, waters, and genuinely enjoys Earl’s quiet company. The affection of the shy and awkward Bob for the white hog is interrupted by his fascination for Diane, whom he meets at a party he has been forced to attend by his roommate Gary, who is in love with their other roommate’s girlfriend Lydia and is writing an endlessly and hilariously bad story about them for his creative writing professor Timothy Monahan, who is flirting with Spanish professor Cecelia Sanchez at Dr. Helen Levy’s dinner party. Dr. Helen Levy, professor of French and Italian, was once Dr. Bo the hog man’s lover, but is now sleeping with Ivar Harsted, the provost, whose twin brother, Nils, born-again Christian dean of extension, is about to marry a younger cafeteria worker named Marly, though Mrs. Walker, Ivar’s secretary whom everyone knows really runs the entire university, doubts the ceremony will ever take place and tells her lover Mrs. Lake exactly that….

There’s more—more students, more professors, a farmer, an unscrupulous Texas billionaire, all brushing past each other in the copy shop or the library. Modern American attempts at social comedies of this kind would seem to require willful naiveté on the author’s part, a decision to be irrelevant, to impose strict Victorian social norms on a terrifyingly slack society. Social novels now are not comedies at all, are they? Dark and grotesque, despairing or blackly narcissistic, they are less about society than they are about the end of society. Jane Smiley, though, has found a class, firm and intact. It lives on. And on. And on. There are arrivistes and scions, outcasts and peripheral poor cousins. There are rules and rewards and subtle distinctions of decorum. In Moo, the academy, despite its students of different economic, social, and ethnic backgrounds, is, in fact, a class, set off from the rest of society and bristling with subtle rules, alliances, snobbery, climbing, and deceit. Smiley doesn’t need the English clergy or even New York’s aristocracy of wealth. She has the university, a society whose members are as artificial, vibrant, and judgmental as anyone Trollope or Wharton could seat around a dinner table.

And in this insular world, the imperfect flourish like Darwin’s mutant finches, making Moo U. rich, full, and strong. Self-sufficient, unsullied by outside realities, this island survives all threats, allowing all its residents the time and freedom to make their mistakes as they evolve and stumble on toward their proper niches.

There are no minor characters in Moo. Smiley gives even walk-ons their own momentary bit of turf, a spiritual home. Gradually it becomes clear that in this way she has built an entire town, its connections organic and living; not a pretty daisy chain of coincidence, but a community, like Trollope’s cathedral town of Barset, enclosed and coherent.

Smiley doesn’t scorn this society, nudging her readers knowingly, inviting us to look down with her at the university’s systemic weakness from our superior position. Instead, she kneels in the dirt, charmed, and picks up every rock in sight, watches the insects scramble, classifies them, names them, adopts them. It is no accident that Moo U. is an agricultural school. Moo is a book about pets, Jane Smiley’s pets.

Joy, a professor of equine management, tends horses for the university. You give the horses names, she thinks, and

they began to accrete personalities every time you said “Don’t put Frenchman in the paddock with Rudy, they always fight,” or “Brandy doesn’t mind having her teeth floated,” or “King really took to jumping, didn’t he?” With preference came point of view; with point of view, personality; with personality, uniqueness; with uniqueness, grief.

This could be a description of Genesis. It’s also a description of Moo. Like Joy and her horses, or God and his clay, Smiley is seduced by the astonishing reality of what she has created. In Moo, Smiley gives us the life of a campus from everyone’s point of view. Even Earl’s.

Pundits (of course there were none of these, since Earl’s very life was largely a secret) might have doubted Earl’s capacity for sincere feeling, given a hog’s naturally sociable disposition combined with an unusually isolated upbringing that could have given him sociopathic tendencies, but actually, his isolation deepened Earl’s pleasure in his and Bob’s relationship. There was little he could do anymore to show Bob how he felt—he was too big and maybe too old to play with the toys Bob had given him. With his bulk, he couldn’t get around the way he had done. Getting up in the morning and then going at his job with apparent enthusiasm was all he had to offer, and every morning he offered it, full of the assurance that though Bob didn’t say much, he did understand.

She forces you to sympathize with dozens of characters, many of them far less appealing than Earl Butz. And though Moo is a mere comedy and Smiley’s last novel was based on King Lear, in some ways Moo goes deeper than A Thousand Acres. In A Thousand Acres, Smiley was graced with the beauty of Shakespeare’s play, but she was also trapped by it, forced to concoct moments that followed the play’s outline but also seemed willed and merely melodramatic in their new, modern context. Because she looked at the irrationality of age and power from the point of view not of the tortured father but of one of his older daughters, she opened the story up, giving a grimly beautiful view of farm life from behind the kitchen window, within the spotless apron, a woman in a man’s world to which she is both central and irrelevant. But in A Thousand Acres, when we look out from the daughter’s eyes, we can see only what everyone else does wrong. She is never allowed anything like Lear’s blind enlightenment. A Thousand Acres is lyrical and surprising and grim, but this focus also diminishes the personal anguish that makes King Lear so heartbreaking.

In Moo, Smiley is not after a new way of seeing an old story, she is trying to create a complete comic world. Whereas comic perception is often restricted, consistent—a shared joke with readers—Smiley wants to share more than a joke. And so we are allowed to share anguish and failure and success, as well. There are so many heroes and heroines in Moo engaged in the novelistic pursuits of learning and becoming that we start to realize that they are not the point of this novel at all. Smiley attends to each of these individual destinies so carefully in order to to discover a community with a destiny of its own.

In one chapter, called “Who’s in Bed with Whom,” she quickly and compassionately presents a catalog of couples, one after the other, almost a checklist of relationships. Two students, newly in love, thrilled with the grandeur and novelty of sex; two professors, newly in bed, bored already by sexual duty; two other professors, in love and thrilled by sex after years and years of a secret affair; two older women comforted and titillated by intimacy and routine; a married couple, neutered by family life, listening for a child’s cough; an economics professor in bed “in the Washington, D.C., sense” with a billionaire. The swift clarity of each of these descriptions, which manage to be both romantic and realistically mundane, confuses us, thwarts our expectations of comic superiority.

In Smiley’s novel nothing ever changes, at least not very much. That is her community’s destiny. We just fit in better at some moments than at others. Moo U. survives all scandals, all losses, all plots. And as all those characters grope each other and grope through academic life, there are a lot of plots. Many of them are linked by another secret project, this one inspired by a greed that is in clear contrast to the purity of Earl Butz’s unhampered fulfillment of his nature. Dr. Lionel Gift, a famous economics professor, writes a secret, hilariously self-serving, hypocritical report recommending that the Costa Rican rain forest be destroyed and turned into a gold mine. When Mrs. Walker, the provost’s all-powerful secretary, divines what is going on and releases the report to everyone she can reach by fax, phone, or campus mail, there is a great deal of scurrying and commotion. The rain forest is saved, but even if it weren’t, we know that Moo U. would muddle on. In Moo, everything happens and nothing happens.

In the end, the misfits are appropriated, the proud are chastened, the modest raised up, perhaps. The animals are named, given personalities and their own unique grief. Smiley never forgets that they’re still just stock, and the farm, which cannot exist without them as a group, has no need of them individually. But this sweet, playful novel about flawed characters in search of one another generously allows them to find one another, as a proper twentieth-century nineteenth-century novel should do.

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