Sunday, October 6, 2013

Moo: A Novel

1995, 1996 Fawcett Columbine edition
Jane Smiley
Moo: A Novel
Original price $12.00, purchase price $5.95
Worn paperback

This book's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: the wide array of perspectives from which the story is told.  It's good to get different takes on events and characters, with everyone from university staff to students to relatives to a large pig named after racist former Agriculture secretary Earl Butz chiming in.  The problem is, it's a lot of people (and creatures) to keep track of, and even on what must be at least my fifth reading, it took me awhile to differentiate between roommates Mary, Keri, and Sherri, or to remember who exactly Garcia was.  Some characters are referred to in different ways, and we don't find out Chairman and Lady X's first names (Jake and Beth) till quite a ways in, his not till the last chapter.  

The novel is set in the academic year of 1989 to 1990, so it's a very turn-of-the-decade setting, looking back at Reagan and other aspects of the '80s, looking forward to a world with greater technology and less Communism.  Smiley sets most of the chapters on campus, but we're aware of a larger world, so one chapter might have a party, while another is about the destruction of a cloud forest in Costa Rica, and yet the party and the destruction may be linked.  As I noted in my review of Thousand Acres, this is a more satiric and yet more upbeat book.  She blithely calls one chapter "Deus ex Machina," even though the machine in question doesn't solve absolutely everyone's problems.

If I had to pick a favorite character, it would be Mrs. Walker, the provost's near-omnipotent, part-Native-American, all-lesbian secretary.  Mrs. Walker's long-term girlfriend Martha thinks she's the only one who finds Mrs. Walker hilarious, but I did, too, and I was glad every time she undercut someone for the greater good.  Even the unpleasant, or semi-unpleasant characters, like Lionel Gift and Timothy Monahan respectively, are fun to read about.  If the book had been tighter-- either with fewer characters, or doing more with the relatively neglected ones-- I might've given it a B+.  Even with the major characters, more editing would've helped, since the Xes fluctuate between three and four children for no reason.

The title is confusing at first, since the cover (on this edition anyhow) shows Earl B. and there are no cow characters in the story.  (There are a few horses whose POVs we don't get.)  It turns out that Moo is the name of this agricultural university and, as with the Xes, no more formal name is ever presented.

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