GOING BOVINE – Libba Bray

This is the story of a totally normal teenaged boy called Cameron. Cameron has a sister, two parents, enjoys quirky music and smoking up and eating pizza. Like most teenaged boys, Cameron’s biggest problems are not doing well in school, not getting along with (and frequently disappointing) his parents, not being able to find a girlfriend and hating his part-time job at a burger joint. That is, until things start to go wrong in his brain and he’s diagnosed with Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (better known as mad cow – see what she did there?). All of a sudden he’s got about the same amount of time left as your average carton of milk and his brain is being turned into Swiss cheese, causing uncontrollable muscle spasms, problems with his body’s essential functions, and some vivid and terrifying hallucinations.

As he lies in his hospital bed, he is visited by Dulcie, a punk rock angel, who tells him he needs to save the world – and take Gonzo (the dwarf in the next bed) with him.

Thus begins an epic adventure.

——

If you’ve noticed that I’ve been posting less lately, this book is why. I got stuck in it and it took me awhile to extricate myself.

When I started this book it was a breath of YA fresh air. As much as I’ve enjoyed all the YA I’ve been reading lately, I’ve found one of the marked differences between it and adult fiction to be the tone with which “adult” situations are written. If there is any drug use or alcohol consumption, it’s accompanied by a not-so-subtle message that it was a bad idea. Sex is either glossed over, skipped entirely or accompanied by some sort of moral lesson. Swearing is also usually verboten.

So I was impressed when this book opens with a teenager who acts and thinks like real teens – one who swears, smokes pot in the bathroom with his friends, mouths off to his dad, gets a shameful hard on from a vapid yet attractive cheerleader, sleeps through his chores, and doesn’t have anything nice to say about the sister who tries too hard to be perfect and won’t eat anything that might make her gain half a pound.

And all in sarcastic, witty, amusing narrative. This is a teenage voice I can relate to.

But in just a few chapters it all changes. With his diagnosis the tone of the book shifts. There’s not so much swearing. No more resentful devil-may-care teenaged antics. He’s on a mission to save the world – and himself. Which would be fine, but the book takes a sharp detour into a sustained yet completely illogical dream/nightmare with no apparent goal, and a ton of details that come out of nowhere and are just… a bit odd. Not to mention incongruous.

They get flagged as terrorists and are chased… by a snow globe company. They get stranded and are rescued by a cult of happiness that has a happiness swat team who repel down from the ceiling whenever you’re feeling blue…. to force-feed you a milkshake. They search for an epic trumpet-player in New Orleans whose big contribution to their mission is to send them to a cemetary…. to bury a pair of sunglasses. And throughout we return to a band called the Copenhagen Interpretation, who magically disappeared during a performance and are somehow tied into the whereabouts of Dr. X who holds the cure for Cameron’s disease and is responsible for bringing something dark into the world that is trying to destroy it. I mean, come on. It’s not even a very good fictional band name. (Don’t even get me started on how the happiness cult’s acronym is CESSNAB, the letters of which don’t even correspond to their full name – Church of Everlasting Satisfaction and Snack ‘n’ Bowl.)

I read the first half of the book just hoping that some of the weird clues and hints would end up meaning something. Which occasionally they did – but usually in a disappointing way that left me thinking, “Really? That’s it?” The rest of the time I was just scratching my head and going, “Huh? Where did this obsession with snow globes come from? And why did we really need to encounter that wish tree and pick up a magic screw for a tangential storyline that no one cares about?”

I am fine with the concept of a hallucinatory journey and a mission that ends up not being real. But it has to be done carefully. Make it a subtle transition so I’m not sure if it’s real or not until the end. Or make the mission a bit more linear and a little less throwing-random-stuff-together. Or create some sort of theme I can follow, like mission parameters that state that one day they say “Yes” to everything and the next they say “No,” which leads them to all kinds of crazy adventures. And make the adventures a bit more interesting and a little less I-have-no-idea-what-is-happening-and-I-don’t-really-care.

Throughout I also kept waiting for the characters to develop. For Cameron and Gonzo to have some good talks in which we find out what they’re thinking and feeling and experience some of their conflicted emotions (they’re teenagers, for God’s sake. We know they have them). For Dulcie to explain how she became an angel, or what her role in this all is, or why she’s been assigned to him, or what she does when she’s not around. But really, by the end, she just seemed to have been written in so that Cameron could find a girlfriend who really “got” him. *Yawn.* Even when Gonzo makes a huge discovery about who the “real” him is, it’s skimmed over so quickly that I had to go back and re-read to see if I was interpreting that right.

What I had hoped for going into this was a quirky adventure with some heart-warming characters and a few tearful moments (because, you know, dying kid). What I got was more straight up acid trip. Don’t get me wrong, that ain’t all bad either (witness Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), I even enjoyed some parts of this one. It just wasn’t the show I bought a ticket to see. By the end I was only vaguely sad about Cameron’s predicament, and while I liked Gonzo and wished him well, I wasn’t too sad to say goodbye to him either. I didn’t care at all about Dulcie, and quite frankly I just wanted that last hundred pages to be over so I could move on to another book.

I hate writing negative reviews, because I know the author put their heart and soul into creating the book I’m criticizing… but I have to be honest, and this book just isn’t a win for me – as much as I wanted it to be. And based on those first few chapters, man did I want it to be. If it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t have finished the book, but they won my (somewhat begrudging by the end) commitment. I’m planning to try some of Libba Bray’s other books because the beginning of the book was totally awesome before we took a wrong turn and ended up in crazy-land, and perhaps some of her less hallucinatory books will have better character development and more purpose. Cos that’s where her writing excels. But in the meantime this one is going on the won’t-read-again shelf. Which makes me really sad, because I started off raving about it.

——

Book Title: Going Bovine
Author: Libba Bray
Edition: Paperback
Published by: Ember
Released: September 28, 2010 (re-issue)
Genre: Young Adult, Illness, Magical Realism, Fiction
Pages: 496
Date Read: July 21-August 5, 2013
Rating: 6/10  //<![CDATA[ var sc_project=10144299; var sc_invisible=1; var sc_security="82f610c9"; var scJsHost = (("https:" == document.location.protocol) ? "https://secure." : "http://www."); document.write("”); //]]>

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  1. Pingback: TOP TEN TUESDAY | BOOKS THAT WEREN’T WHAT I EXPECTED | RAIN CITY READS

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