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‘Moo’ by Jane Smiley

If you were born yesterday, or perhaps last week, you probably haven’t heard of this darkly satirical and nearly farcical novel about a midwestern agricultural college referred to as “Moo U.” I first read it a quarter of a century ago when it first came out. Now that I’m re-reading, I find it just as funny and just as true when it comes to university politics and the misfits who keep schools forever running on square wheels as I did in 1995.

I worked at two universities (not counting student jobs), attended four others, and–along with the rest of the family–followed by father to at least another five as he moved up through the ranks of college professors and deans. Suffice it to say, I know college politics in spades. That’s why I see this novel as the Bible detailing what’s really happening behind all those ivy-covered walls.

In a 1996 interview with Elisabeth Sherwin, Smiley says that she did not model the story after Iowa State University where she was teaching then. She told Sherwin, “I always wanted to write both a tragedy and a comedy on the same theme. ‘A Thousand Acres’ was the tragedy, the theme was American agriculture and technology, and ‘Moo’ was the comedy.”

At the moment, most people know Smiley from her recent “The Last Hundred Years Trilogy: A Family Saga Series” that includes Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age. I liked the trilogy and see it as quite an achievement. But when I first found Jane Smiley’s work, it was her fifth novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres. That one remains my favorite.

Here are a few excerpts from Moo:

“This was an aspect of Barbie-hood that Mary had never given any thought to, that Barbie created Ken, anatomically incorrect to the very core of his brain, where he understood as well as he understood his own name that Barbie was inviolable.”

“He was turning out to be one of those men whose interest diminished as they got to know you. You got into this pattern of trying to be interesting by revealing more and more of yourself, like a salesman unpacking his sample bag, but the man, though he looked like he was smiling and paying attention, was really shaking his head internally—not that, not that either, no I don’t think so, not today.”

“Those Latin American and Eastern European novelists aren’t any help here. They live inside the mansion of female desire as if it is their right. Their own desire is a nice healthy dog on a string, ready to eat, fuck, fetch, piss on the bushes.”

Unfortunately, I can’t find a pithy excerpt that illustrates the dark side of Moo U. I can’t tell you how and why I think Moo is true of some really colleges without libelling a lot of people. If you decide to read Moo, I suggest you wait until after you’ve graduated from college. If you read it before you go to college, you’ll never go to college.

Malcolm

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