Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Review: Going Bovine

Title: Going Bovine
Author: Libba Bray
Genre: Young Adult, Surreal Dark Comedy, Speculative Fiction
My Rating: ★★★★ ½
Warning: SPOILERISH

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Take a modern day Holden Caulfield diagnosed with the human equivalent of mad cow disease. Throw him in a mission to find his cure (and save the world!) with a hypochondriac dwarf and a Viking god cursed as a lawn gnome. Add a punk angel with a penchant for spray-painting misspelled messages on her wings, a cluster of fire demons, an enigmatic Wizard, and a wormhole that will bring the dreaded apocalypse. Stir well—and voila! You just prepared Libba Bray’s surreal dark comedy, Going Bovine.

There are many authors who attempted to concoct an effective formula that can render their stories both fall-off-the-chair funny and heartbreaking at the same time, but I believe only a handful of those who declared “Eureka!” got a positive response from the reading world. Libba Bray is one of them.

Speaking through the (vulgar) mouth of teenage lazybones Cameron John Smith,Going Bovine is a story of death, choices, friendship, and of course, life. Bray’s spot-on sense of humor is reminiscent of Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; her writing style is addictive and convincing. The characterization is astonishingly brilliant, and it proves to be more than enough in persuading the readers to root for the unlikable, unreliable narrator.

Cameron is perhaps one of the most irksome antiheroes in Young Adult literature. The ennui he builds around himself is perpetually backed up by his I’m-the-world’s-most-apathetic-jerk-and-I-know-it-and-you-can’t-do-anything-about-it attitude. Considering himself a ‘social paramecium’, he wants to survive high school (and life in general) just by, well, having mass and occupying space. Nothing more. The word ‘effort’ is nonexistent in his lexicon. Bray makes it so that Cameron comes off as a sardonic quipster that can give you the urge to punch him just for being who he is. That is until he finds out he acquired a fatal illness, the Creutzfeldt-Jakob variant BSE.  Suddenly, he is forced to grow out of his shell of indifference; he is forced to care. He has to face many questions, the most important being: have I lived a meaningful life? Have I ever lived at all?

Clearly, the answer is no. Cameron wasted a majority of his life existing, not living. With only a few time left before shifting off the mortal coil, he learns it is too late for him to taste the essence of life. He begins to despise everyone who will outlive him. But as in Pandora’s box, after all the bad news emerges hope: the angel Dulcie gives him a chance to live. He grabs this opportunity and sets off in an adventure like no other, to search for his supposed cure.

Most of the poignant moments occur while Cameron and his newfound friends are on the road. Why is it only when Death is reaching out to you with open arms that you are finally noticing the things in life worth hanging on to? Cameron belongs to a dysfunctional family, and though he does not admit to hating any member, his attitude toward them is the usual “I don’t give a damn.” Everything changes when his impending death is confirmed. When Cameron talks with his father on the phone, you could almost hear his croaking “I love you.” He has a couple of touching moments with his mom too, but my favorite is the subtlest, when he dines at Konstant Kettle and misses his mom’s Grammar Nazi-sh pet peeve. He decides to call her:
There’s a pay phone in the way back next to the men’s bathroom. I drop in all the change I’ve got and make the call. It rings four times and goes to voicemail. I hear my mom’s familiar message. 
“Hi, this is Mary Smith. I can’t come to the phone right now because I’ve probably been carried away bygriffins. But if you leave your name and number, I’ll get back to you just as quickly as Hermes would.” There’s a pause, and then she says to me, “Cameron, did I do that right? Oh! We’re still recording! Oh my goodness…,” and her laugh is cut off. That message used to annoy the crap out of me, my mom being all spacey and mom-ish. But right now, hearing her voice is the best thing in the world, like waking up and realizing there’s no school. There’s a beep, and my stomach tightens. 
“Um, hi, Mom. It’s me. Cameron. Well, you probably figured that part out,” I say, sounding like the biggest dork. “Anyway, I’m okay. I want you to know that first. And, you know what? Keep grading those moronic English Comp 101 papers, because otherwise, we’re all gonna be getting our gas at the K-W-I-K S-E-R-V and drinking our E-X-P-R-E-S-S-Os at the Konstant Kettle, two K’s. Seriously, the world needs you. You matter. A lot. Okay, I gotta go, ’cause the griffins are here and you know how much they hate to wait. Love you,” I add quickly, and hang up.
Halfway through the novel, Cameron is becoming a more pleasant person. He is still a potty-mouthed smartass, but he cares a lot now. He even loves. I enjoyed reading about their “stops” and how Cameron picks up a couple of lessons from them that he hasn’t learned in the past sixteen years of his life. However, it easily became clear to me that the story will take a Lewis Carroll-esque turn. I’m not certain if it’s because of the plethora of clues strewn across each chapter or the extreme surrealism of events, but either way it did not deter me from liking the whole thing.

Aside from carrying significant messages that will send you pondering, what makes Going Bovine stand out from today’s flurry of cookie-cutter Alice in Wonderland tales is that it makes you question what really happened. That said, I absolutely love the concept of parallel worlds/alternate realities. In the readers’ perspective, everything is just a Don Quixote journey…but what is real, anyway? Bray poses that rhetorical question from the very start. Like Schrödinger’s Cat experiment, who’s to say only one reality exists? Can two realities not happen at the same time? Perhaps it’s only my inner kid’s happy-ever-after alarm going off, but I took comfort in the fact that this recurring element may also apply to the storyline itself.

There’s one thing I did not see coming: the identity of the Wizard of the Reckoning. I was shocked in a good way, and that’s plus points in my book. The final pages were amazingly bittersweet and thought-provoking. I was sobbing quietly, but a sense of eternal hope is also lingering there, making me smile (therefore making me look like a first class idiot, haha).

Going Bovine is officially taking its place in the bookshelf of my favorite novels. 4.5 stars out of 5 for an unforgettable read!

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