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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.