Stuffed on animal farm

MOO by Jane Smiley Flamingo pounds 15.99
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IN CONTRAST to the sombre landscape of A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley's latest novel is a surprise. At first glance, this is an all-American blockbuster: a comic campus saga teeming with characters, bubbling with plot, spinning through a turbulent year of changing US political thought and idealism. Like Coca Cola, it slips down a treat, a long, refreshing read with a sweet aftertaste ideal for long plane journeys or days on the beach. But Moo has a powerful kick in its tail. Laced through the everyday stories of academics and farmers, administrators, students and a singular pig are twists of bitter irony about American life and appetites, plus some worrying suggestions on the destructive power of capitalism now set free to roam the globe.

The story opens at the end of the 1980s; after the fall of the Berlin wall and bursting of the economic bubble, it is a period for financial and personal review. The people at Moo University are feeling the changes. In an ex-agricultural college isolated in the vast mid-western wheat fields, it is clear that without private funding budgets must be cut to the bone, and greater numbers of students fed through smaller, slimmed-down departments.

Most of the intellectuals consider themselves above such base considerations, but two figures emerge as the new faces of the degree industry. Lionel Gift, professor of economics, works from the premise that "all men have an insatiable desire for consumer goods". He approves the redefinition of students as "customers" and is blithely planning to revive Costa Rica's economy with the destruction of the last cloud forest in the world. Down at grass roots, scientist Dean Jellinek is hand in glove with a shady plutocrat interested in false pregnancies in dairy cows (his earlier funding of experiments in chicken and store cattle feed have already yielded results remarkably like our own salmonella and mad cow diseases). Meanwhile, everyone else tries to find their niche in a world valued only by its price in the marketplace. But despite their single-minded pursuit of sex, religion, political anarchy or pure thought, nothing quite satisfies. The only happy soul on campus is a hog called Earl Butz, the subject of a private study to see just how much food he can consume.

Smiley's wry observations of her characters are always amusing. Yet as the novel progresses, they do not change much. Promising individuals like the sixties anarchist, born-again Christian, black feminist and innocent farmer's boy remain facets of homogeneous Americana; all cling to well- worn paths of experience and self-awareness, reducing the author's most biting satire to farce. Also missing from their society is any real violence. Once upon a time an ivory tower in a grain field suggested a haven from the madness of big city streets. But Waco and Oklahoma City have exposed a culture of anger and alienation there, too.

The only really sympathetic character is Earl the pig. When he finally eats himself to death the metaphorical resonance is unmistakable. With this sprawling, clever work there is always a temptation to search for something deeper; and it certainly intends to be more than a brilliantly funny read. When the state governor, worried by budget cuts, threatens the wrath of the people on "those pinheads", he is asked if he means "eggheads", a more common term for university intellectuals. "Pinheads, eggheads, knuckleheads, what's the difference?" he replies. If the intellectual currency of modern America is as debased as Smiley suggests, the difference could mean life and death.