Going Bovine by Libba Bray Is the Next Cult Classic
When I heard about Going Bovine, I had no idea that it was going to be in my psychic category of fabulous books that I, Courtney, would know instantly was destined for success. I had enjoyed Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty trilogy and knew just the kind of fantasy-meets-historical novel-slash-romance reader who would love them. So when I heard of Libba's project about mad cow disease and physics I was more than a little skeptical. Could she do this? I had suspicions that she could for one reason only - Libba wears awesome boots.
That sounds nuts, I realize, but I always see her in interviews perched insouciantly on some dais wearing a pencil skirt, her cool person glasses, and these high calf, usually glossy, stiletto boots - I'm talking the kind of boots that your mother told you good girls don't wear, or the kind that Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episodes are built around. Like a large, face-framing hat, boots like this take a certain amount of personality to pull off, and Libba has it IN SPADES. So when I thought about the boots, I realized, you know, she could really pull off a weird sounding book like this. I'll cling to my small feathered thing with wings and cross fingers.
I should have never doubted the boots. When I first saw the trailer in which Libba wears a cow costume, replete with jutting udder, to talk about Going Bovine, I laughed myself silly. But the book still kept getting shunted to the bottom of my end table pile because I didn't know what kind of mood I was supposed to be in to read it and appreciate it. Now I know that this is the kind of book that ruins your enjoyment of the next two books that come after it because it was so earth-shattering. Be warned.
Going Bovine gets a "wha???" response when you try and describe it, because you automatically sound lame. "It's a funny but dark book about a stoner guy who gets mad cow disease and goes on this journey because an angel with Doc Martens told him to defeat a nihilistic mad scientist using Quantam physics to destroy the world. Oh, and there's a lawn gnome who's really a Norse god. He's the best!"
Books that have a lot going on are hard to describe, and therefore sell to readers (I have to think like a librarian, here) and I honestly cannot think of another book that compares to this one to do my patented, "Well, honey, you like fill in the blank, so you'll love this!" But while I was reading this complex, swirling masterpiece, I realized that Libba Bray was joining the ranks of those super-smart, very sneaky, young adult authors who parallel existing books or plots to lend insight into their own story. Think how girls suddenly got into Wuthering Heights because of Twilight, or fans of Gordon Korman's books like Son of the Mob (inspiration Romeo and Juliet) or Jake, Reinvented (inspiration The Great Gatsby). Full disclosure: I totally Jones for these kinds of books.
Libba, that cheeky little monkey, does it with Going Bovine in that it parallels the story of Don Quixote to which she alludes rather early on in the book when our protagonist, Cameron, is stuck reading it in his interdisciplinary English literature/Spanish language class (okay, maybe she's not so sneaky since she mentions it). Don Quixote, one of the most trailblazing works of literature in its time period, is a picaresque novel, which is a literary form very popular in Spanish literature, featuring an often satirical story often revolving around the adventures of an anti-hero. My excellent Novels for Students series (see our library's reference section) defines a picaresque by saying "this type of narration chronicles the humorous adventure of a rogue...while on the road, often traveling a long distance." Literary critic Diane Andrews Henningfeld says that the picaresque is often seen as being "metafiction" which means that the authors "asks readers to recognize that what they are reading is fiction in order to explore the relationship between fiction and reality."
So here's the coherent (it's from the publisher, Random House) plot summary:
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.
The parts I love the most are how Libba parallels the themes of Don Quixote - the theme of love being paramount. Not only is Cameron interested in and eventually falls for Dulcie the angel, but he also comes to terms with his love for his dysfunctional family as he travels on his adventure, deep down realizing that he may very well be in the hospital room dying, being read to by his parents or his overachieving twin sister. The way his adventure not only confronts the "save the world" mission statement he's adopted but also resolves his unsettled family issues feeds into the theme of a strong desire for peace, which is also a hallmark of Cervantes' work. Like the literary critic quoted above, Libba Bray asks us the same question that Cervantes asks his reader - namely, what is better, the reality we truly live in, or our created version of reality? Cameron's story is a deeply meaningful, funny, insightful adventure in which he and all his cohorts grow as people and find love. Who could ask for more than that?
Consider exploring the companion website for the novel (which still has some expanding to do but has a great interface and good resources). Since Going Bovine won the Printz award (which is for excellence in young adult literature and you should read about Libba's reaction to getting it), I feel my psychic streak is PRETTY GOOD (to borrow a Curb Your Enthusiasm phrase) and I could be possibly insufferable to the students and friends to whom I've blabbed about this book for the last two months. The only thing that makes my world better after having read that last page of Going Bovine over again? The news that Libba Bray has been signed to write a "supernatural fantasy" series based in the 1920s focusing on the characters of Dorothy Parker and Zelda Fitzgerald!!!! I bet she'll wear the boots to write it.