Jane Smiley’s satire of a Midwestern university is like a big college party to which everybody’s invited. They’re all here — the whole multi-culti, crazy-quilt gang that makes up modern academic life in America: Maoists and free-marketeers, idealists and careerists, cafeteria workers and deans, the repressed and the randy, black girls from the city and white boys fresh off the farm.
Moo, a loosely plotted series of short vignettes, follows scores of characters at a fictitious college nicknamed Moo U as they move in and out of each other’s lives, classrooms, offices, homes, and especially beds. Moo is like an intricately structured puzzle with lots and lots of pieces that somehow miraculously fit together at the end.
Smiley’s characters make us laugh, and her pace rarely lags. Why, then, is Moo ultimately disappointing? Because we’ve come to expect more from Smiley, author of the bravely titled The Age of Grief and the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres. In those works, and others, Smiley proved that she knows how to make us ache, and care, and think. In contrast, Moo makes us chuckle — but from a master like Smiley, that’s not enough. B-