Jesse Kavadlo, PhD, will be the discussion leader for Moo by Jane Smiley from 4 to 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 24 in the Pritchard Meeting Room. The For the Book Group is sponsored by the Finch Center for Teaching and Learning.
Moo, next week’s faculty book group selection, by Jane Smiley, a Webster Groves native, is what might be called an academic novel. It is set on the campus of “Moo U,” generally taken to be a fictionalized version of University of Iowa, where Smiley completed her graduate work. And in keeping, the story seems confined to college characters and locales: professors, administrators, students, staff, and Earl Butz, a pig and subject of a secret study to see just how large a hog can grow.
Yet Smiley’s Moo U quickly becomes more like Dickens’ teeming London, with attendant Dickensian humor, than an opportunity to take potshots at the provincials. Throughout the novel, we hear about the self-centered English professor with nothing but publication and promotion on his mind (surely a figment of Smiley’s imagination), but also an economics professor who literally dreams of money, animal science professors and horse trainers, tenured radicals, albino twin administrators, students across racial, geographic, and socio-economic lines, and even the big pig himself. But Smiley resists caricature and stereotype, and we do not just read about these characters; during each of their chapters, we hear from them, briefly inhabiting their consciousnesses though a nearly transparent and deft use of the third person limited perspective, as self-centered English professors refer to it. In a supposedly academic novel, the reader manages to mediate upon the Costa Rican cloud forest, theories of calf-free lactation, the cultural history of the boar, equine physiology, gourmet cooking, industrial espionage, and much more. And there are sex scenes.
For campus novel, it sprawls. For a novel centered on a single school year in the late 1980s, it seems remarkably prescient; reading Moo today, it becomes clear that, like Egypt, higher education has been in a thirty year state of emergency. Yet for a book about impending catastrophe, it’s funny. And for a story set on a Midwestern campus, Moo is also clearly about the ways of the world. Like many movies that have been made since—Crash, Babel, Magnolia, Traffic, and Adoration, just to name a few—the novel demonstrates, through burgeoning connections, that, like the threatened forest, the university is a fragile, counter-dependent ecosystem. And it suggests that all secrets, embodied by the ever-enlarging pig hidden in the heart of campus, eventually burst from their confines. To me, Moo represents a remarkable achievement in narrative construction and erudition, but it is also a literary exercise in empathy and understanding. I never cared about a pig, or administrators, so much.