not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
this post was originally published on my Goodreads account.
It’s interesting reading this right after Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man. While Bradbury’s novel bemoans the effect student activism in the 70s seemed to be having on the functions of the university, Moo takes place in the post-Reagan 90s, and focuses on how the college counterculture has gradually given way to the corporatization of education, and how the university has gone from “A limited promise extended to a limited group” to “a vast network of interlocking wishes, some of them modest, some of them impossible, many of them conflicting, many of them complementary.” There is one character, Chairman X, who could be the main professor from The History Man 20 years down the road, apopleptic at the fall of Communism, the spread of globalization, and his own inability to do anything to turn back the tide. Another character, economics professor Lionel Gift, is his Reaganite opposite, a fanatic for the free market who calls his students “customers” and doesn’t mean anything pejorative by it.
But where Bradbury makes a lean (starved, even), pinpoint satire of changing social norms, Jane Smiley makes Moo part of a larger picture, taking us into the lives of individual students, professors, administrators, teaching assistants, and support staff. As with almost any novel taking a large, Dickensian view of things, some of these characters and situations are more satisfying than others. The chapters that center on Mary, a black Chicago transplant in the oppressively white Midwestern university, are quite effective; the chapters focusing on her roommates Sherri, Keri, and Diane less so. The adventures of the elderly twin senior administrators are generally loony in a fun way, the psychodrama of a spiraling marriage between a geneticist and an animal husbandry specialist, while well-done, is too tonally jarring. Aside from Gift and X, the characters are almost too well-rounded for their own good, without the caricaturist’s touch that can help small characters in a big book stick in the memory. But Smiley writes deftly, with an easygoing wit that never loses track of the ideas behind the jokes.
I liked these ideas, and in particular enjoyed Smiley’s insight that the state university, in attempting to widen its functions and become a prestigious academy of higher learning, is giving short shrift to the unsexy vocational majors that actually make the university relevant to the majority of the taxpayers in the state. The professors and administrators want to make the university Ivy League Iowa, because it makes their positions more prestigious, but the state doesn’t want to pay for that, so they cut funding, so the university looks to private industry to replace that funding in the short term, either unaware of what the consequences will be or too desperate to care. The needs of global corporations then push out the independent academics anyway, while making the pursuits of the university even less applicable to the daily lives of the people who still fund large portions of it with their taxes. Smiley’s ability to show this vicious cycle of budget-cutting and privatization intruding into the stories of all the different characters is the most impressive thing about this book, and makes it worth reading. The comedy and characters, on the other hand, are what will make you want to keep reading.
I’ve already made this review too long, but I want to close with an appreciation of a character I know I will remember, one that makes me believe Jane Smiley (whose life is a mystery to me) has taught her share of creative writing courses. This character is Gary, who is taking a creative writing class, and has a crush on his roommate’s girlfriend, and continues to write (and rewrite, and rewrite) a story of how the girl marries his roommate, regrets her life, and dies (hilariously and melodramatically each time). And as we see the story go through its endless, laborious drafts, we see that the writing gets better, the details less indulgent, the structure more interesting—and it’s all for nothing, because none of that changes the fact that the story, at its heart, is Gary writing about how this girl will never be happy because she’ll never be with him.
As a former teacher, the sight of a student pursuing an idiotic thesis over multiple drafts, and being unable to see that it’s the central concept that’s the problem, is all too familiar. And as a student of creative writing classes, the student who is unable to stop inflicting his psychological and sexual hangups on his (almost always HIS) readers is equally recognizable, and there seems no way to inform him what an ass he’s being without violating the generally-accepted boundaries of politeness. The world is stuck with Gary until he realizes what he’s doing and learns to look outside himself, and the funniest and most cynical joke Smiley makes is showing how the modern American university, bastion of self-knowledge and cultivator of empathy, is utterly unequipped to help him out with this.