Title: Going Bovine
Author: Libba Bray
Genre: Fantasy, Speculative Fiction, Literature, Young Adult
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 2009
Hardcover: 496 pages
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did we get this book: Bought
Why did we read this book: We have heard nothing but rave reviews for Libba Bray’s newest novel. And, as Thea was a fan of A Great and Terrible Beauty (and will seriously, honest to god finish reading and reviewing the Gemma Doyle books soon), and Ana was excited to try Ms. Bray’s writing, we eagerly plunged into Going Bovine.
Summary: (from amazon.com)
Can Cameron find what he’s looking for?
All 16-year-old Cameron wants is to get through high school—and life in general—with a minimum of effort. It’s not a lot to ask. But that’s before he’s given some bad news: he’s sick and he’s going to die. Which totally sucks. Hope arrives in the winged form of Dulcie, a loopy punk angel/possible hallucination with a bad sugar habit. She tells Cam there is a cure—if he’s willing to go in search of it. With the help of a death-obsessed, video-gaming dwarf and a yard gnome, Cam sets off on the mother of all road trips through a twisted America into the heart of what matters most.
Thea: As we’ve said above, both Ana and I were *extremely* excited for Going Bovine – it came highly recommended by bloggers, official critics and friends alike. In fact, both Ana and I were SO stoked for Going Bovine that we both began the book with expectations that it would crack our top 10 of 2009 lists! And though this novel didn’t quite make my top reads list, it comes pretty gorram close. I loved Going Bovine – there’s no other way to say it.
Ana: From the get go, I thought the book had Ana-Crack (thanks, Thea) written all over it: unreliable narrator + humour = win. The idea of this book was so promising, I had an allocated slot for it in my top 10 of 2009. Although, just like with Thea, it didn’t quite make it, I still loved it to bits. And I am completely infatuated with Libba Bray’s writing right now.
On the Plot:
He’s an apathetic, modern day impersonation of Holden Caufield. Privileged, intelligent enough, solidly middle class, son of two professor parents and twin brother to a popular cheerleader sister who can do no wrong. Cam really doesn’t care about…well, anything. He goes to classes and does the bare minimum to pass, and smokes a lot of weed. But soon, Cam’s aimless existence takes new direction when he learns that he is sick. Terminally sick. Dying in a couple of weeks sick. Cam has an extremely rare neurological disease – the equivalent of mad cow for humans – which causes heaving spasms, hallucinations, and has him bedridden in the hospital in the very, very faint hope that experimental treatment may cure him.
But then, Cam gets a visit from a strange, beautiful angel with spray painted wings and hot pink hair – Dulcie’s her name. And Dulcie offers Cam the chance of his lifetime: help her and the folks upstairs by finding a dimension hopping physicist named Doctor X and stop the end of the world (which he has unwittingly unleashed via his wormhole-traveling hijinks) – and Dr. X will be able to cure him. Faced with certain death on one hand, and a dim hope for life on the other, Cam agrees and sets off on a cross country mission with a hypochondriac dwarf named Gonzo, encountering cultists, physicists, Norse Gods, and Fire Demons…and finally experiencing life.
Thea: From a plotting standpoint, Going Bovine is a schizophrenic, surrealist comic tragedy – and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s an adventure, a road story across an America that is both familiar and alien, blending everything from bowling, smoothie happiness loonies to theories of relativistic physics. And Disneyworld. And Norse mythology. So, it’s fair to say that Going Bovine covers a whole lot of ground. Some readers might get a little frazzled or bored with the jumping, episodic nature of Cam & Gonzo’s adventures, but for me? Well, I loved it. It’s quirky, weird, and completely winsome. Yes, there were some extraneous encounters on Cam’s long road, and yes, there were some passages that felt as though they were unnecessary and written for the sole purpose of being quirky – but like all road stories, the destination isn’t the important part; the journey is. And Cam (& Gonzo)’s journey was completely worth it.
From a writing standpoint, Going Bovine is an incredibly smart book. I loved how the entire novel is open to interpretation – is Cam simply hallucinating the whole thing in his hospital bed? Or is it something more? For my take, I loved how the whole book was essentially a giant Schroedinger’s Cat – both realities, where Cam is in his hospital bed near death & on the road in an old busted up caddy fighting off an evil snow globe corporation, coexist (just as Schroedinger’s cat is both alive and dead within the box before it is opened). I loved the Don Quixote parallels/inversions too. Very cool stuff, Ms. Bray. Very cool stuff indeed.
Ana: I agree with Thea – if there is one word that captures the feel of this book, “cool” it is. But the very best type of “cool” : the bold, cheeky, smart, quirky, type of cool. The type that combines several ideas – for there is Philosophy, Mythology and Physics , for example, in the book – with a bit of heart and soul (literally and metaphorically) added to it. Plot-wise the novel is surreal and completely trippy and one does need to have an open mind to read this book. I love this passage here – it encapsulates the feel of the book perfectly:
“As a kid, I imagined lots of different scenarios for my life. I would be an astronaut. Maybe a cartoonist. A famous explorer or a rock star. Never once did I see myself standing under the window of a house belonging to some druggie named Carbine, waiting for his yard gnome to steal his stash so I could get a cab back to a cheap motel where my friend, a neurotic, death-obsessed dwarf, was waiting for me so we could get on the road to an undefined place and a mysterious Dr X, who would cure me from mad cow disease and stop a band of dark energy from destroying the universe”.
Thea aptly refers to the Schroedinger’s Cat experiment to describe the book and I think her insight is genius, for the story is exactly like this: both realities may be happening at the same time, it doesn’t have to be one OR the other. But regardless of how cool the idea or the execution are, the book would mean nothing to me, if there wasn’t heart and soul added to this recipe. And those come partly from the lovely writing, partly from the relationships that Cameron starts during his journey. I got a quote that is another perfect embodiment of what exactly I am talking about:
“Cameron, look at me” she whispers.
I Do. I see her. Really see her. And in that moment, I know she sees me.
She smiles, and in her smile is everything I could ever want. Her face looms closer, closing the impossible distance. Her lips are near mine.
And when it comes, her kiss is like something not so much felt as found.”
I get goose-bumps every time I read this sentence. And as much as this book is funny (out-loud funny even) , it is also very sad and I did find myself bawling a couple of times.
I do have to mention something else that really bothered me though (although I am sure, this will not bother 99% of the people that read this book) : Cameron’s favourite musician is a Portuguese guy called the Great Tremolo (quite possibly, worst made-up Portuguese name ever) for his cheesy songs and lyrics. A couple of times, some of his lines are reproduced in the book. Like this one, for example:
“Para Mí He Visto Angeles”
I hate to be the one to break this to you but THIS IS SPANISH AND NOT PORTUGUESE. This was enough to put me off reading the book for a couple of hours. For example this other sentence here:
“Eu considerei a sua cara e sabia a felicidade”.
Which is supposed to mean “ I looked upon your face and knew happiness” but doesn’t really mean anything. The Portuguese line is all wonky and plain wrong – it doesn’t make sense.
Being Brazilian (and Portuguese being my mother tongue) this frustrates me to no end. It is obvious that a lot of effort was put into creating this book: the cover art is amazing, this is a hardcover plus there are beta readers, editors etc who must have read the book, so it sort of infuriates that no one thought of spending half an hour to check that the language is correct and no, online translation softwares or BabelFish are NOT the way to go – as evidenced by the above line – a prime example of a translation gone wrong.
But yeah, a minor quibble for an otherwise great book.
On the Characters:
Thea: This is where things get REALLY interesting. See, Cam is a character that I began the book not liking. Check that, I began the book DESPISING Cam. He’s everything I hate in a character – he’s whiny and apathetic, he’s disinterested and has no reason to be such a…wanker. He’s a modern day Holden Caufield, in other words – and I loathe Holden Caufield. But rather than being some crackshot Catcher in the Rye, male angst rehash, Ms. Bray does the incredible with Going Bovine…she makes me CARE for the characters. This book is the equivalent of what would happen if you took an apathetic asshat like Holden and made him CARE about something – forcing him to live his life. And ultimately, that’s what makes Cam such an endearing character – the fact that he finally, at the end of the day when faced with certain death and hope, he chooses hope. I finished the book loving Cam for all his imperfections, for his bravery and his – if you’ll pardon the pun – ability to seize life by the horns.
The secondary characters are also fantastic – I loved Dulcie, the hot-punk-goth angel with a sense of humor and an appreciation for the small things in life (like microwaveable popcorn). I loved Gonzo, the Eddie Kaspbrak of Going Bovine – a little person with an overbearing mother and a severe case of hypochondria. I loved Balder, the garden gnome that insists he’s the entrapped visage of the Norse God, tricked into gnome form by Loki. I loved them all.
Ana: I too, started the book disliking Cameron and his Holden persona intensely. But at some point in this journey my opinion changed as the story and the character’s arc progressed and I ended up caring for Cameron very much. For all that the book has this extreme cooky story with exaggerated plot points ( like for example their visit to CESSNAB – the Church of Everlasting Satisfaction and Snack ‘N’ Bowl); There were quite a few, quiet moments that were extremely poignant and important like Cameron holding his mother’s hand or talking to his father on the phone.
I did wonder about something: if taking the Holden archetype and adding an external influence to it, by making the character realise he needed to change but only because he was at the brink of death, wasn’t a little problematic and perhaps not really organic. But then it hit me: as much as sometimes we would like to see a story explained, compartmentalised, defined, real life is not really any of these things is it? It is chaos and tragedy and that is even truer when the unthinkable happens – when a 16 year old boy is faced with death when he hasn’t had the chance to yet live – he never even got the change to grow beyond his Holden persona on his own time.
This is the beauty of Going Bovine: that it takes chaos and tragedy and makes them more bearable, meaningful and perhaps even a bit amazing.
As for the other characters, I loved all of them from Gonzo and Balder to Dulcie and even the The Wizard of Reckoning – that was a surprise I did not see coming.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Thea: What more is there for me to say? I loved Going Bovine. I wholeheartedly recommend it to EVERYONE – especially to reluctant dude readers, or literary snobs who think male ennui is the magnificent apex of character development. [snorts]
Ana: Going Bovine was a wonderful , cool reading experience to me: it made me laugh uncontrollably many times and it made me sob quietly when the right time came. I loved it.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the First Chapter:
In Which I Introduce Myself
The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.
I’m sixteen now, so you can imagine that’s left me with quite a few days of major suckage.
Like Career Day? Really? Do we need to devote an entire six hours out of the high school year to having “life counselors” tell you all the jobs you could potentially blow at? Is there a reason for dodgeball? Pep rallies? Rad soda commercials featuring Parker Day’s smug, fake-tanned face? I ask you.
But back to the best day of my life, Disney, and my near-death experience.
I know what you’re thinking: WTF? Who dies at Disney World? It’s full of spinning teacups and magical princesses and big-assed chipmunks walking around waving like it’s absolutely normal for jumbo-sized stuffed animals to come to life and pose for photo ops. Like, seriously.
I don’t remember a whole lot about it. Like I said, I was five. I do remember that it was hot. Surreal hot. The kind of hot that makes people shell out their life savings for a bottle of water without even bitching about it. Even the stuffed animals started looking less like smiling, playful woodland creatures and more like furry POWs on a forced march through Toonland. That’s how we ended up on the subterranean It’s a Small World ride and how I nearly bit it at the place where America goes for fun.
I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the Small World ride. If so, you can skip this next part. Honestly, you won’t hurt my feelings, and I won’t tell the other people reading this what an asshole you are the minute you go into the other room.
Where was I?
Oh, right—so much we share, time aware, small world. After all.
So. Small World ride, brief sum-up: Long-ass wait in incredibly slow-moving line. Then you’re put into this floating barge and set adrift on a river that winds through a smiling underworld of animatronic kids from every country on the planet singing along in their various native tongues to the extremely catchy, upbeat song.
Did I mention it’s about a ten-minute ride?
Of the same song?
In English, Spanish, Swahili, and Japanese?
I’m not going to lie to you; I loved it. Dude, I said to myself, this is the shit. Or something like that in five-year-old speak. I want to live in this new Utopia of singing children of all nations. With luck, the Mexican kids will let me wear their que festivo sombreros. And the smiling Swedes will welcome me into their happy Nordic hoedown. Välkommen, y’all. I will ride the pink fuzzy camel in some vaguely defined Middle Eastern country (but the one with pink fuzzy camels) and shake a leg with the can-can dancers in Gay Paree.
I was with the three people who were my world—Mom, Dad, my twin sister, Jenna—and for one crazy moment, we were all laughing and smiling and sharing the same experience, and it was good. Maybe it was too good. Because I started to get scared.
I don’t know exactly how I made the connection, but right around Iceland, apparently, I got the idea that this was the after?life. Sure, I had heatstroke and had eaten enough sugar to induce coma, but really, it makes sense in a weird way. It’s dark. It’s creepy. And suddenly, everybody’s getting along a little too well, singing the same song. Or maybe it had to do with my mom. She used to teach English classics, heavy on the mythology, at the university B.C. (Before Children) and liked to pepper her bedtime stories with occasional bits about Valhalla or Ovid or the River Styx leading to the underworld and other cheery sweet-dreams matter. We’re a fun crew. You should see us on holidays.
Whatever it was, I was convinced that this ride was where you went to die. I would be separated from my family forever and end up in some part of the underworld where smiling kid robots in boater hats sang nonstop in Portuguese. I had to keep that from happening. And then—O Happy Day! Salvation! Right behind the Eskimo igloo (this was before they were the more politically correct but slightly naughty-sounding Inuits), I saw this little door.
“Mommy, where does that door go to?” I asked.
“I don’t know, honey.”
We were headed for certain death on the River Styx. But somehow I knew that if I could just get to that little door, everything would be okay. I could stop the ride and save us all. That was pretty much it for me. My five-year-old freak-out meter totally tripped. I slipped free of the seat and splashed into the fishy-smelling water, away from the doe-eyed, pinafored girl puppet singing, “En värld full av skratt, en värld av tårar” (Swedish, I’m told, for “It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears”).
The thing is, I didn’t know how to swim yet. But apparently, I was pretty good at sinking. You know that warning about how kids can drown in very little water? Quite true if the kid panics and forgets to close his mouth. You can imagine my surprise when the water hit my lungs and I did not immediately start singing, “There’s so much that we share.”
The last thing I remember before I started to lose consciousness was my mom screaming to stop the ride while crushing Jenna to her chest in case she got the urge to jump too. Above me, lights and sound blended into a wavy distortion, everything muted like a carnival heard from a mile away. And then I had the weirdest thought: They’re stopping the ride. I got them to stop the ride.
You can read the full excerpt, and more, HERE.
Thea: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Ana: 8 – Excellent
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