Milking the Subject Jane Smiley's `Moo' Delves into Midwestern Academia

Article excerpt

SHE departed on a month-long promotional tour before her colleagues at Iowa State University had an opportunity to read her latest novel, but Jane Smiley is pretty sure they'll like it.

They'll need a self-deprecating sense of humor. Smiley's "Moo" (Knopf, $24) is a laser-accurate satire of life at a Midwestern land-grant university, complete with every stripe of internecine jockeying for power, sexual and economic politics that such a life entails.

For followers of Smiley's work, "Moo" is yet another shade of the varied repertory of the Webster Groves-reared writer.

Her last novel, "A Thousand Acres," was a modern retelling of Shakespeare's "King Lear" tale set in rural Zebulon County. It was almost unilaterally praised by critics and was awarded the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for literature.

Before that, "The Greenlanders" was a dense, historical saga about a 14th century Norse colony. Her early novellas explored topics and characters equally diverse.

Critics have called "Moo" a "surprising departure." But for the author herself, "Moo" is a natural adjunct to "A Thousand Acres." Both use the Midwest as a landscape.

"I'd always wanted to write a tragedy and a comedy with the same setting," Smiley says. "I see them as a pair. Maybe someday they'll be sold in a slip-covered set."

She grins.

It's something Smiley does very easily, the corners of her mouth edging upward slowly and then suddenly completely as she lets the listener in on a joke. It's a Cheshire cat smile.

Still, Smiley is more chameleon than cat, and literary watchers have often marveled at her ability, even as a beginning novelist, to embrace multiple forms and settings as her own.

"I've always liked to go intensively into something, to bury myself in it, and then it's over," Smiley says. A pause. "Considering that, I think my husband is amazed that we're still married." The grin again.

Indeed, her intensive commitment to a writing project is evident: Massive research efforts and much thought are obvious in the gentle, subtle ways her stories build and involve the reader, even in topics about which he initially may have little interest.

In writing "Moo," however, Smiley had to go little farther than her office door to examine many aspects of the novel's universe.

Since 1992, Smiley has been a distinguished professor of English at Iowa State, where she has taught creative writing and literature for almost 15 years.

Academia provided fields just as fertile for fiction as farming communities did for "A Thousand Acres."

Set in a relatively small Midwestern agricultural college (never named, but affectionately referred to by students and faculty as "Moo U."), the characters of "Moo" are instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent more than five minutes in the realm of academia. Everyone at Moo U. has a personal and professional agenda: academic, sexual, social, economic, political and philosophical.

Smiley depicts many of the denizens of "Moo" with sophisticated humor and imbues them with a general good-naturedness; she turns a less approving stroke to the hypocrisy, egomania, self-delusion and self-aggrandizement of others.

Consider Dr. Lionel Gift, an opportunistic intellectual economist who persists in calling students "customers" and willingly skews his research to line his pocketbook with grant money and his wall with accolades.

Or Dr. Bo Jones, a researcher with a single-minded fascination for hogs, harboring a secret experiment deep within the walls of an unused horticulture lab. …