Thursday, August 15, 2002

Looks like I'm not the only one who thinks Jane Smiley has dropped the ball when it comes to Dickens. Philip Hensher of The Spectator thinks rather more of Smiley than I do, but he, too, suggested that Smiley was too overwhelmed by her topic to put it in any perspective:

"The very strong impression the book gives is that it has been written by someone conscious that they ought to be on their best behaviour, and rather nervous about the prospect. It feels very much like someone who is trying her best to write in an uncongenial mode, and saying the sorts of things which she thinks she ought to be saying. In this case, a novelist of the first order is trying to write orthodox literary criticism and biography. One feels — one hopes —that she has suppressed her real interest and insights into Dickens in favour of the sort of things a literary critic would say, and in many cases already has said. We get a great deal, therefore, about Dickens’s ideas about society, which no one since Orwell has really thought a fruitful subject for inquiry — they are ridiculously flimsy variations on ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if’, and only interesting because they are effective, simple assertions on which great novels can be based. There is an amazing amount about whether characters are lovable or memorable or delightful, a line of inquiry which may have been at the cutting edge of criticism in the reign of Edward VII, but is distinctly embarrassing now. And there is a nervous feeling that she ought to be giving the novels marks out of ten and summing them up. What we want is what intrigues her, the moments which have struck her, and not whether Barnaby Rudge is inferior overall to Martin Chuzzlewit."

Lest anyone think I wholly dislike Smiley, here is a draft of a review of Moo from some years back:

Mooby Jane Smiley. Knopf, 414 pages. $24.00.

The late 1980s are closing in on Moo U., the Clemsonesque backdrop for this deft comic poke at the grovelers of academia -- where there's nothing like a budget cut to heat up the race for rank and privilege.

The faculty and staff of this ag-based institution, known only by its nickname, have spent the Reagan years in considerable ease. The grant money came in, the perks were plentiful, and everyone got comfortable. They've learned how to suck up to corporations, pad expense accounts, gouge academic conferences, and play personal and sexual politics for all they're worth. No less than their students, who arrive courtesy of Mom and Dad's savings, Moo's faculty and staff are children of an academic welfare state. Even the Writer in Residence has learned that the Art of Fiction has nothing on the Art of the Schmooze.

But dark days are looming. The good old boy governor -- who never did like all those "pinheads" and "deconstructionists" teaching the state's youth -- announces a potentially fatal $7 million cutback.

What to do? When in doubt, jump into bed with the private sector. Ready and waiting is Arlen Martin, a jug-eared Texas billionaire (sound familiar?) best known for his rather toxic forays into the feed industry. (His last concoction formed holes in the brains of cattle.) Martin thinks he can save a little R&D money by taking on the school as a research partner in strip-mining a Costa Rican forest. This is just fine by Lionel Gift, the school's ranking economist, a sanctimonious free-marketeer for whom "all goods are good" and God Himself is the ultimate capitalist.

While Gift's enemies work to scuttle his plans, others take bioengineering to new heights. Dean Jellinek, the animal science professor, has seen his plans to clone cattle go awry; now he's looking into "calf-free lactation" -- false pregnancy inducement to make Bessie a perpetual cash cow.

Amidst these plans is one almost no one knows about: a highly covert project involving a 600-pound Landrace boar named Earl Butz. Earl, the subject of a study on the bovine lifespan, lives considerably better than the average hog. He roots around in a "profoundly well-ventilated Ritz-Carlton of a room" in the school's old slaughterhouse, basking in the loving attention of a work-study student who stints on neither hay, corn nor back-scratches.

Earl, like the rest of the faculty, doesn't know the difference between enough and too much. As one character ponders late in the book, "everyone around the university had given free rein to his or her desires, and the institution had, with a fine, trembling responsiveness, answered, `Why not?'"

Ideas don't prosper in this atmosphere; indeed, Smiley suggests, real ingenuity might best be found outside the system.

I could have done without most of the student characters or the author's overly pronounced moral edge, but Smiley, who teaches at Iowa State University, clearly knows her turf. Moo is a bold comic thrust at a culture where money, fame and the upper hand will always be the leading family values.

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