A very crowded campus

MOO Jane Smiley Flamingo pounds 15.99

Within this bloated novel there are a few neat novellas struggling to get out. That is not to say that Moo is enormously long, but it certainly feels it. I counted at least 20 equally important characters on the crowded campus of Moo University. Any one of them - the ambitious black student, for example, who shares with the bulimic red-head who flirts with the all-American kid who argues with his plump girlfriend who is adored by the messed-up creative writing student who is taught by the miserable fiction writer who fancies the sexy Costa Rican lecturer who sleeps with the ageing hippie who loathes the corrupt economics lecturer who is exposed by the lesbian secretary who works for the characterless provost whose evangelical Christian brother marries a naive virgin who deserts him - might resonate for more than a few minutes in our imaginations, if Jane Smiley had done more than just sketch in their profiles.

Oddly, Jane Smiley does not play on the possible strengths of such a fragmented plot. Instead of revelling in these choppy waters, she wants to anchor every moment. We are introduced to each character with little potted histories and descriptions of their hobbies or looks or gestures, and when they pop up again 20 or 30 pages later, they have to be ushered in with the same mowing machine or dyed hair or red sweater. Each person carries around this package of characteristics designed for immediate recognition. And so the whole plot seems oddly static, since none of the characters can change or develop.

How different that is from the dark twists and turns of A Thousand Acres, Smiley's last novel, which was based on the plot of King Lear but which seemed to spring directly from the personalities and land she described. The morality that drove that book was a beating, human pulse, but Moo is driven by simple antitheses. So if on one page we have the free- spirited Helen Levy and Ivar Harstad delighting in their independent relationship - "there was nothing about her that he didn't like, including the innate independence that prevented him from ever approaching the marriage question, even the living-together question" - we know that a few pages further on we will find the opposite, Ivar's brother announcing his engagement to "a woman with all the womanly virtues of kindness, care, selflessness, Christian love, trust, faith, modesty." And each of these relationships will, in turn, move to its antithesis: Ivar will propose to Helen, and his brother will be deserted.

Similarly, we are able to set Chairman X, the hippie who runs the horticulture department and utterly rejects consumerism, against Lionel Gift, an economics lecturer who teaches the principles of naked capitalism and dabbles in almost every anti-green evil around, including destroying rainforests. None of these moral themes picks up any steam - partly because the characters tend to get 3 pages apiece before disappearing for another 30, but also because they are clearly driven by structural rather than emotional forces.

That's not to say this book is badly written. In fact, it is immensely professional and well-written in the creative- writing class style of American fiction. A buoyant irony knits the disparate themes together. And there is always a wealth of physical detail bulking out the characters: "Joy unwrapped the elements of her repast and set them on her desk. She had a meat loaf sandwich, a nice pear, two Chips Ahoy!, a cranberry Sundance, and a small bag of sour cream and onion potato chips"; "She had carpeted the living room in the sort of closely woven and subtly colored plush that would run thirty dollars a yard from the sort of flooring place that charged extra for carpet and pad". The problem is that, in line with all the easy-read American novelists from Ellen Gilchrist to Terry Mac- millan, Smiley seems to think that this careful observation of people's sitting rooms and lunches and social chatter is the best route to their identity.

Perhaps Jane Smiley learnt to cloud her fierce talent with these busy effects by teaching creative writing herself. In the portrayal of Timothy Monahan, the disaffected fiction writer who teaches puzzled students to write up their observations of one another, she provides one of the book's few successful satires. Once or twice, he realises that life overruns his own schematic fiction: "He had slept with Cecelia twice; he recalled that both times he had felt a feeling of dissatisfaction, almost of boredom. He recalled that he had felt these feelings, but he couldn't in fact recall the feelings. Instead, he recalled how warm her body had been . . . Cecelia was the only woman he'd ever touched where you felt, not the fluid itself, of course, but the heart's force, the energy that drove the fluid. How could that have left him dissatisfied?" This understanding of the inexplicable emotional heat of life made A Thousand Acres so memorable; it is sad that Moo is so rarely warmed by it.

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