Thursday, July 10, 2014

Going Bovine

Going Bovine is a YA novel by Libba Bray which I read thanks to positive feedback I heard from various sources (it actually won the 2010 Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature), and though it hasn’t become a new personal favorite by any stretch of the imagination, I can say reading it was quite an experience (sorry for the less than ringing endorsement). Going Bovine is about 16 year old Cameron Smith, an indifferent high school slacker floating through life without really living it. Cameron is an underachiever or maybe he just seems that way compared to his twin sister Jenna (“perfect hair, perfect grades, perfect social standing”). Cameron on the other hand just wants to do some pot in the school bathroom with his “sort of friends…if getting high in high school bathrooms and occasionally sharing a table in the caf counts as friendship,” sure he could care more, but you have to concede that when your dad is a college physics professor and your mom teaches in the local community college, you have a lot to live up to.

It’s in English class discussing Don Quixote that Cameron suffers the first of the hallucinations (at first thought to be marijuana-induced), where he briefly glimpses flames licking at the walls of the room as his body seemingly on fire with pain like every touch was connecting with raw nerve endings causes him to lash out and strike another student, namely Chet, Jenna’s boyfriend. This episode earns him not only a five day suspension but also a visit to a drug counselor and a shrink. Unfortunately, despite some nasty psych meds, the hallucinations continue until the last one lands him in the hospital undergoing a battery of tests wherein a specialist finally diagnoses him with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal neurological disease more commonly known as the human form of Mad Cow Disease.

Hospitalized after yet another incident, Cameron’s condition is quickly deteriorating when he is initially visited by Dulcie, a hallucination (or angel?) with pink hair, boots, a riveted breastplate and wings; she informs Cameron of his mission, which is namely that he can both save his life and the world if he finds the mysterious Dr. X, a time traveling physicist. Though at first unswayed by Dulcie’s request, Cameron quickly changes his mind and with the help of his hospital roommate, Gonzo, a death-obsessed, video-game loving dwarf, the two take off on their quest to New Orleans, Florida, and more as we tag along for the adventure of Cameron’s life; as he learns the difference between existing and living.

The book jacket describes this as a dark comedic journey, and while there were laughs to be had during this surreal adventure, I still found it more a tragedy than anything else. As a reader, I could never quite shake the thought that Cameron’s adventure, for all its farce and mayhem, was in fact the hallucination (or maybe heavenly sent escapade?) of a young man on his deathbed. In fact, you really can’t forget, as interspersed amongst the fun the author wrote in unexpected passages, sometimes only a sentence or two in length, that gave the reader a glimpse of Cameron’s true reality; so you’d be chuckling about some asinine hijinks or another, and the scene would switch back to the grim hospital room where a nurse is caring for his IV or his mom is heartbreakingly sitting by his bedside, gently stroking his hair and crying.

While the author’s message to live life to the fullest while you can comes through loud and clear, my heart could never quite fully get in on the fun; I think it was like a self-protective mechanism on my part because of the inevitable heartbreak I knew was coming. One other complaint is that parts of the book (mainly in the middle) are at times a little confusing. The novel heavily references Don Quixote, a book which I never read, so maybe that’s part of the problem. I will say that the ending is incredibly touching and poignant, and I also liked that in the end, you’re left with just a little bit of doubt as to what really took place: real or not, hallucination or heavenly dream.

I think I’ll leave it by saying that Going Bovine is a judge for yourself kind of book; for me, it wasn’t horrible, it wasn’t great; but in the long run, I’m glad for the experience.