Review: Going Bovine

Going Bovine book coverGoing Bovine by Libba Bray

My rating: 4 out of 5

It’s been a while since I’ve done a book review, but I thought I’d give it a go again because I’m trying to process my thoughts about this novel. I had been intending to read Going Bovine for some time (it came out in 2009) but hadn’t ever gotten around to it until this Christmas break. I like to read the books recognized for the Michael L. Printz Award, which focuses on YA books written with great literary merit. I try to have as many of these books on my classroom library shelves as I can; I love the idea of sharing books that are interesting to teens, written for teens, that are also artful.

That being said… sometimes I wonder if the Printz Award is more about an exercise in YA writing, rather than books that real teen readers actually want to read. Several of the books I’ve read from the Printz list are inarguably well-written, but I have a really hard time knowing which of my kids would like them — and when I recommend them to my students, I often get pretty lukewarm reactions. (Recent example: Punkzilla.) It’s kind of like the Pulitzer, y’know? Everyone knows that Pulitzer Prize-winning books are amazeballs, but does anyone actually read them?

Going Bovine was really well done, and I enjoyed it enough to knock it out in one day despite my increasing inability to focus on a book. And I’m going to put it out there for my kids to try. But I’m not really 100% sure what they’ll think…

This book tells the story of Cameron Smith, a disaffected sixteen-year-old boy who thinks his life pretty much sucks up until the point when it actually sucks — that is, the day he is diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (better known to most of us as mad cow disease, a fatal neurological disorder). We first realize that all is not right in Cameronville when he begins hallucinating, seeing a pink-haired angel following him around as well as a legion of enormous fiery creatures that seem to be trying to burn the world down.

After Cameron is hospitalized, the angel reappears and lets Cameron in on a little secret. Yes, he has mysteriously contracted CJD… but there’s more to it than that, involving a time-traveling scientist named Dr. X and the fire giants’ leader, the nefarious Wizard of Reckoning. If Cameron will accept the angel’s mission and undergo a quest to save the world from the Wizard, she tells him, then Dr. X may be able to cure him and save his life.

What’s a teenage boy with a death sentence to do? He recruits a sidekick (inevitably, a hypochrondiac Hispanic afro-wearing video-gaming Little Person named Gonzo), sneaks out of the hospital, and begins following a loosely-constructed trail of clues to track down Dr. X and save the world. As time goes on, it’s increasingly unclear whether Cameron is actually trekking across the southeastern U.S. or if his quest is the product of a disintegrating mind as he lies in his hospital bed. The result is a satirical, sometimes touching, sometimes hilarious, and often hallucinogenic tale that, surprisingly, works.

I liked this quotation from a Goodreads reader review:

Imagine Brian Lee O’Malley surrendering his masterpiece Scott Pilgrim series to Bob Dylan, Scott Adams and Jack Kerouac. The constraints are Scott Pilgrim is now a stoner who has mad cow disease, Ramona is a punk rock angel who flies in and out of Scott’s life, and Wallace is a hypochondriac dwarf human. They all take a road trip through the dirty South and face many a task. New Orleans blues legends, smile cults, eskimo rock bands, evil snowglobes and the occaisional [sic] viking gnome.

(I’d also throw in a bit of Neil Gaiman; Going Bovine reminded me at times of American Gods.)

So what’s “wrong” with the novel? Why am I unsure whether it will actually appeal to my YA readers? I have three thoughts on that subject:

  1. I’m a character-driven reader, and Bray’s characters always turn me off. Gemma Doyle drove me insane, and Cameron’s not exactly the first person I’d choose to go on a roadtrip with. And while I totally get what Beauty Queens was trying to accomplish, its cast was just waaaaaay too much for me. That said, most kids who’ve read the Gemma books love them, so maybe it’s just me. And I certainly encounter a fair number of Caulfield-esque, stoner boys in my line of work.
  2. It’s really, really weird — and most of my teens have a pretty low tolerance for absurdism. They’ll read fantasy or science fiction, but satire flies over their heads and this sort of free-wheeling plot entanglement seems to be kryptonite to them. I think absurdism (whether a la Douglas Adams or as an attempt to capture drug trips/mental issues on paper) requires not only a high level of intelligence and reader buy-in, but a sophisticated sense of humor. It’s challenging to find a kid who possesses those things and who wants to read about a kid like Cameron.
  3. It’s also — at least for this consumer of plot — fairly predictable. The breadcrumbs Cameron follows, meant to be so random that they almost have to be the result of a diseased brain, are glowingly obvious to readers who know their quest tropes. There’s relatively little doubt as to what is really going on (although it’s pleasant to read the story as a straight-up magic realism quest) or as to what the end result will be. I’m not sure that predictability is a problem for most YA readers, but I thought I’d throw that one out there.

In the end, I’m glad I read it, and I’d recommend it to other adult readers of YA literature if they’re the sort who are tolerant of absurdism and somewhat unlikeable protagonists. (In fairness, Cameron becomes much more likeable as the book goes on — it’s not much a spoiler to say that this is essentially a character redemption tale.) I’m also glad that I have it as an option for my students, in case the right one comes along. It is a very well-executed book, deserving of the Printz; it is not my favorite book ever. But maybe it will be yours!

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