Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Going Bovine" by Libba Bray

Summary:  Cameron, a teenage boy without much in the way of interests or motivation, learns he has mad cow disease, and quickly ends up in the hospital, fading fast.  Then Dulcie, a punk angel, enters his life, and convinces him and a dwarf friend to go on a crazy trip around the country, searching for the mysterious Dr. X in order to cure Cameron and save the world.

Musings:  I'd heard a lot of good things about Going Bovine, but I really didn't know what to expect going in.  I was sold on the first page, however, when I met the narrator Cameron, and his sarcastic humor.  When talking about the obnoxious football-star-turned-religious-motivational-speaker (after an injury), Cameron notes: "Anyway, [the speeches] get him laid, I hear.  Doing the horizontal mambo with sympathetic cheerleaders is, apparently, a-okay in God's book, and it doesn't upset your spine like football.  Of course, now he's dating my sister, Jenna, so I'll just be flipping on the denial meter for that one" (7).  Cameron was a fabulous protagonist.  Like most teenagers, he was neither a total victim or a total instigator.  Some things in his life sucked, but he also set himself up for failure.  He let apathy be his default mode rather than risk being disappointed.  His growth throughout the novel shaped the story, and he felt like a real person.

The novel was hilarious, and weird, and random, and funny, and touching all the way through.  In a book with a hypochondriac dwarf, a garden gnome inhabited by a Norse god, and evil in the form of the United Snowglobe Wholesalers, you can't go wrong.  On top of that, the novel addresses issues like sex and sexuality, drug use, and death without insulting teenagers' intelligence and without any "message."

I read it while on the plane and at my in-laws' place for Thanksgiving and had a great time.  It's the perfect book for people who like darker humor and the absurd.

Update: 10:02pm (a few references to minor spoilers)

When I wrote my review I had just returned home from Thanksgiving break and didn't really think about the book critically.  I still loved reading it and would recommend it, but I was looking over some reviews and was struck by one person's comments about the character Dulcie.

Dulcie is an important character in the book who initially spurs Cameron on his journey.  However, as this reviewer pointed out, despite appearing frequently throughout the novel, Dulcie is not a person in her own right.  Her purpose is to support Cameron and allow him to achieve his fantasies: she's a wizened guide, an object of sexual desire, and a damsel in distress when necessary for Cameron's odyssey, but she has no personality in her own right.  We learn nothing about her and nothing about what she wants.  Cameron's male friends, Gonzo and Balder, are striking and interesting individuals.  But the sole primary female character is identified by her wings and smell, not her character.  Angela at Bookish Blather wrote an interesting post a week or so ago about "blank page heroines." These "blank page heroines" support the male figure without having any thoughts or desires in their own right.  Dulcie would fit right in.

Angela and the authors of some of her source material speak of books in which women want to insert themselves into this "blank page heroine" role (i.e., Twilight).  However, Going Bovine is a little different.  I don't know if girls would want to be Dulcie; she's almost too blank, despite her sexual desirability, to want to emulate.  However, I don't like this idea that women "sidekicks" can't be real people.  Throughout the book, Bray has the reader question what about Cameron's journey is "real."  If it is, in fact, all inside Cameron's head, then he's recreated a male fantasy: awesome and loyal male sidekicks and girl who is cute, nag-free, and sexually available.  That may be true to adolescent males' fantasies, but in a book that portrays Cameron as learning how to "truly live," it's problematic.  It skews my feelings about him a bit, and it's bothering me about an otherwise wonderful book.


  1. I really didn't know what to expect for this book, and so it's been languishing on my 'frozen holds' list at the library. You've completely sold me on it. Dark humor + absurd = my dream read. I'm un-freezing it now... :)

  2. Sounds interesting! I really enjoyed Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty series so I'd like to check this book out.