Saturday, March 5, 2016

Moo by Jane Smiley

I remember listening to someone talk about their experience in reading Moo long before I got around to reading it. Oh, Smiley skewers them! I remember this person saying. It’s about Iowa State University, where she was an English professor, and she tears that place and the people she knew there apart.


She does paint a comically accurate portrait of the Midwest, especially for the benefit of people unfamiliar with it.

Cecelia Sanchez, assistant professor of foreign languages and teacher of Spanish, too found the Midwest eerie, but it was not only the flatness that threw her. Each day of the past two weeks she would have picked a different source of dislocation. Right now it seemed eerie to look out on twenty-one blond heads, in rows of five, unrelieved by a single brunette. Last night she’d thought the humidity was going to suffocate her. A few nights before, her rented duplex had seemed uncannily muffled by trees. Sometimes it seemed that everyone she saw, everyone in every room, was determined to be very very quiet. In the almost empty streets there was no shouting, no music. When she went into stores, the customers seemed to be gliding around on tires. Salespeople appeared beside her, smiling significantly, murmuring, apparently ready to flee. No one wanted to negotiate or even talk about a purchase. You were supposed to make up your mind in some kind of mysterious vacuum. The smiling itself made Cecelia uneasy, because it didn’t seem to lead to anything, and whatever the distinctions were between types of smiles, they were so fine that she couldn’t make them out. On all sides, her neighbors were dead quiet, the hum of air conditioners substituting for conversation and argument. She saw men in gas stations exchanging sentences a single word long and understanding what they were getting at.

And she manages to subtly reveal the undercurrents of Midwestern culture and how it has shaped the sensibilities of her native characters, often without them fully realizing it.

In Bob’s former opinion, girls had been generally unremarkable. Some future one had your name on her, but her likeness to your sisters or aunts or mother was major, and reassuring. He had long assumed a relationship to the whole realm of girls that was very similar to his father’s relationship to his mother--respectful, with much understood, little actually declared. He had been subtly warned against anything else, for one thing. His father and grandfather spoke disapprovingly about boys and men who followed their dicks around; his mother and aunts reserved their most puzzled scorn for girls and women who didn’t fit in, didn’t ask for recipes, and thought themselves better than other people. It was easy to see the rational basis for all of this disapproval, too--that kind of man and those kinds of women made no one happy, least of all themselves.

And she does send-up the mistrust and mistaken impressions that exists between “liberal” state universities and their often much more “conservative” stewards in the state legislature and governor’s office.

It was well known among the citizens of the state that the university had pots of money and that there were highly paid faculty members in every department who had once taught Marxism and now taught something called deconstructionism which was only Marxism gone underground in preparation for emergence at a time of national weakness.

It was well known among the legislators that the faculty as a whole was determined to undermine the moral and commercial well-being of the state, and that supporting a large and nationally famous university with state monies was exactly analogous to raising a nest of vipers in your own bed.

It was well known among the faculty that the governor and the state legislature had lost interest in education some twenty years before and that it was only a matter of time before all classes would be taught as lectures, all exams given as computer-graded multiple choice, all subscriptions to professional journals at the library stopped, and all research time given up to committee work and administrative red tape.

But it seems to me that she is not just skewering one university, but all universities; or at least the intellectual culture that seems to pervade most universities, sharpened to a razor sharp point, but aimed mostly at paper tigers.

For example, when she describes a faculty meeting…

Dr. William Garcia, professor of psychology, could see them taking up their roles as soon as they walked into the meeting room. Father Lionel, humorless, even, you might say, witless, big with gravity though actually a rather small man. Mother Levy, full of feminine power that was profound but essentially reactive, bringing sustenance in the form of coffee to the meeting, which she would certainly offer around at some point. Sister Bell, the youngest, perhaps the most brilliant, probably (as she hadn’t even opened her mouth, and Garcia had never actually met her before) the most recalcitrant (though she would experience her recalcitrance as authentic rebellion). Brother John Vernon Cates, a black man who had fled to science and would fruitlessly strive to bring “facts” to bear on every conflict between Mom and Dad. And finally himself, of course, a lifelong mediator--he could already feel the tension and it already hurt him. He was better in groups of boys, he had been great, in his youth, on the playground, big enough, quick enough, good-looking enough, well-meaning enough, good at sports. Most men, in fact, were competent in groups that mimicked the playground, incompetent in groups that mimicked the family; that was why all-male committees ran the most smoothly.

...Smiley is not just caricaturing faculty meetings at Iowa State, not even university faculty meetings everywhere, but meetings of all kinds in all organizations with a diffused model of leadership.

But I think Smiley is also doing something more. She is not just lampooning this university culture. She is in some ways mourning what came before it. In Moo, a university is a kind of interloper--a doppleganger, even--an institution that came in to replace something that worked with something that doesn’t work at all.

This perspective becomes clear in the novel’s closing pages, as we are allowed to look through the nostalgic eyes of one of her many characters.

What is a university? Ivar couldn’t help but pause and wonder. When he’d first come to this particular university, at eighteen, he had easily found what he was looking for. It was 1953, and angular men in glasses, crewcuts, and bow ties were everywhere, a benign army of uncles, who liked to point things out with the stems of their pipes. He and Nils had themselves worn crewcuts and bow ties and answered to “Mr. Harstad” whenever they were called upon in class. Across the campus, in their own compound, protected by parietal rules and housemothers, the girls in their circle skirts and sweater sets were clearly a species apart, and were clearly being groomed for a mating ritual that Ivar and Nils eventually elected not to participate in, choosing instead to join the uncles. The place was merely a college then, a group of colleagues. It made no claims to universality.

Over the years he had learned that the uncles tended to squabble a lot, that, in fact, the more any two uncles seemed to look alike superficially, the more bitter and profound was their antagonism toward one another. Another thing he had learned was that while from the outside it did appear that the greatest change in university life had been the grand infusion of money from all federal, state, and private sources, this infusion had had no effect upon intramural hatreds--they burned no hotter, and no less hot, simply because there was lucre at stake.

He and Nils had easily understood the single promise of “a college experience” that would last as long as they made the grade. This college experience would cost their parents a rather modest sum and the return on their investment would be equally modest--a small measure of extra respect, a bit of added insurance that Nils and Ivar would live their lives in the middle class. In the fifties, colleges had to sell themselves a little. It hadn’t been obvious to everyone that spending money on higher education was worth postponing a good job or an apprenticeship to a well-paying trade. One of the brochures the college had put out began, “A college education opens doors.” A graphic of a hallway, two or three doors opening onto inviting groups of smiling men. A limited promise extended to a limited group.

Money was one aspect of present universality. The uncles in their crewcuts had been succeeded by other uncles in Afros, ponytails, razor cuts as up-to-the-minute as any on Wall Street, as well as by aunts in bobs or curls or chignons, aunts in blue jeans whose locks flowed to their waists, even, on one memorable occasion, by an aunt who clipped her hair very close--one quarter of an inch--and put a note on her office door advising students who desired to meet with her that should could be found on the university rifle range. Uncles and aunts all over the university taught in a universal diversity of accents. The students responded in kind.

And the university shamelessly promised everything to everyone, and charged so much that prospective students tended to believe the promises. While a state university, unlike an Ivy League institution, did not promise membership in the ruling class (Wasn’t that the only real reason, Ivar thought, that four years at Harvard could cost $100,000?), Ivar’s university, over the years, had made serious noises to all sorts of constituencies: Students would find good jobs, the state would see a return on its educational investment, businesses could harvest enthusiastic and well-trained workers by the hundreds, theory and technology would break through limits as old as the human race (and some lucky person would get to patent the breakthroughs). At the very least, the students could expect to think true, beautiful, and profound thoughts, and thereafter live better lives. At the very very least, students could expect to slip the parental traces, get drunk, get high, have sex, seek passion, taste freedom and irresponsibility surrounded by the best facilities that money could buy. Its limits expanding at the speed of light, the university could teach a kid, male or female, to do anything from reading a poem to turning protein molecules into digital memory, from brewing beer to reinterpreting his or her entire present.

In other words, a university is a lie. Everything it tells you it is, it isn’t.

Over the years, Ivar thought, everyone around the university had given free rein to his or her desires, and the institution had, with a fine, trembling responsiveness, answered, “Why not?” It had become, more than anything, a vast network of interlocking wishes, some of them modest, some of them impossible, many of the conflicting, many of them complementary. Ivar himself resisted neither the wishes nor those who offered funds to pay for them. The most that he could say for himself was that, from time to time, he had felt obscurely uneasy.

And that’s pretty much what this book is. Following the stories of its major characters, Moo, like the universities it satirizes, is a vast network of interlocking wishes, some of them modest, some of them impossible, many of the conflicting, many of them complementary.

And that’s okay, if that’s your cup of tea. Add to that Smiley’s brilliant writing--as crisp and as lucid as I remember it being from her other books I have read--and you should have something that keeps you turning page after page.

But I have to be honest. Despite understanding the theme and enjoying the prose, I had real trouble following the basic story that the book was trying to tell.

There are too many characters, for one thing. Moo’s Wikipedia entry lists 35 of them, and as I scan down the list, there are only a handful that I can honestly classify as minor. With so many characters and intersecting or diverging stories to remember, I frequently felt a little lost in the woods. And when I finally realized (once on page 140, and again on page 273) that what I had thought we two different characters were actually the same one being referred by the narrator and by other characters in the story by different names, I truly felt ready to give up.

One of my coping mechanisms was to zero in on the handful of characters I felt the most kinship with, but then I was frequently disappointed by the amount of screen time they received.

One of these kindred spirits was Gary Olson, a student in a fiction writing class, who writes terrible stories by doing exactly what his teacher instructs.

It was late, almost two. The riot, Gary thought, had been terrific, a real experience for his literary alter ego, Larry. He didn’t want to write about it too quickly, though, because Mr. Monahan had always advised letting things settle, steep, ferment, lie dormant, lie fallow, germinate, etc. Still, he’d had his notebook out the whole time, writing down notes. He was especially proud of one section: “Some woman comes out in a red coat. The guy I’m standing next to says to this other guy, ‘Bet you a six-pack of Molson’s that I can get this through that little window in the door there,’ the other guy says, ‘You’re on,’ and then he beaned her right on the forehead, and the two guys were just standing there saying, ‘Fuck, man! Fuck, man! Did anybody see us? Fuck, you hit her, man! Shhh! Fuck, did you mean to hit her? Nah! I meant to get it in that broken window, man, and she stepped right in the fucking way! What if she’s fuckin’ dead, man? She’s not dead! Fuck! I can’t believe it! Let’s get the fuck out of here!’” He had taken down the dialogue just the way Mr. Monahan had had them do it the first semester, only by now he was faster, and got it down more accurately. It was good dialogue, too, dramatic, though not, he realized, especially revealing of the idiosyncratic personalities of his characters. He would have to add that on his own.

Smiley is doing something wonderful here. It seems obvious that she is using Gary as an archetype of all the talentless aspiring novelists she must have encountered in her stint as an English professor at her midwestern university, but I think it is something more than that, too. It’s not just about the hapless student. It’s about the craft of writing fiction itself. Gary shows us that it is clearly something more than just as the sum of its parts. The novelist is not just putting the jigsaw pieces in all the right places, as Gary’s attentive but fruitless labors demonstrate, precisely following the picture on the cover of the puzzle box. The novelist must use those interlocking pieces, not to create someone else’s picture, but to paint her own, her own original picture never before seen in the world.

Some of Smiley’s other novels do that. Moo only comes close.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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