November 2009

Kati Nolfi

features

Going Bovine

Going Bovine is a departure from the corseted historical fiction and romance of Libba Bray’s popular Gemma Doyle Trilogy. Bray’s new YA novel is a contemporary dark comedy with supernatural elements featuring vividly characterized boys; no ringlet- haired girls and Victorian bodices are on the cover of this book.

Cameron is a sixteen year old stoner, the son of professors, and the brother to his popular sister, Jenna. He’s a sarcastic “C” student whose only pleasures are smoking pot (happily, drug use is not demonized to didactic effect here) and The Great Tremolo, a Tiny Tim-esque outsider musician. Cameron is the uniquely visionary and underachieving adolescent drawn from the Holden template. Why try or care when you’re surrounded by the inevitability of suburban torpor? Like a lazier Marcus from Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, Cameron is a misunderstood prophet with special knowledge of hypocrisy. His self-possession and intelligence seem designed for adult readers to idealize cynical and snarky teens (with a side of manic pixie) and mourn the passing of their youth.

After experiencing hallucinations and impulse control problems that are attributed to his bad attitude and drugs, Cameron is diagnosed with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy -- mad cow disease. The disease has no cure and the book’s narrative trajectory and wistful Make-A-Wish quality are similar to but harder edged than Jenny Downham’s Before I Die and Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere. The death is certain but this is not a book about death. Life must be affirmed as epically as possible, so Cameron is joined by Dulcie, the punk rock angel, a talking yard gnome named Balder, and a hypochondriac dwarf named Gonzo, all manifested in his coma dream once he has been hospitalized.

The details are idiosyncratic -- a character is imprisoned in a snow globe! -- in a way that is all too familiar to the rambling quirkfest of certain YA novels. In an effort to be entertaining, too many details and characters are packed in, which confuses and drowns the narrative instead of moving it along as intended. And while Bray’s novel appears to be unique, it is at heart a mission, a quest for personal meaning.

Quickly, Cameron’s brain deteriorates and he enters a dreamy comatose state, represented as a road trip of the mind, a tour of all the things he didn’t get to do when he was healthy. The plot is impossible to concisely recount. A few items include sexual wish fulfillment with cheerleader Staci Johnson, the Church of Everlasting Satisfaction and Snack and Bowl (CESSNAB), and the Party House. Cameron’s road trip is his redemption. Dream Cameron believes his road trip will save the world and find a cure for his spongy dying brain from Dr. X. Bray plays with reality, juxtaposing the hospital dream and road trip dream, interchanging which one is reality and which one is dreamed. 

At nearly five hundred pages the novel is long and baggy; too much is focused on Cameron’s road trip fever dream. The family isn’t well established enough in the novel proper for us to mourn Cameron’s death or to experience their reactions. Bray scorns censorship, the self-esteem movement, and enforced positivity and happiness. Bray could have written a good dystopian work on identity and reality instead of a novel about an untimely teen death and the desperation to live if only in dreamland. She says some interesting things about identity and reality but they don’t issue from her characters. For instance, the sarcastic undercover revolutionary Library Girl character seems to be the author herself:

“We found that a lot of the stories or words or even ideas contained in most books could be negative or hurtful or make you question your happiness or even question the concept of happiness as an ideal, and that just wasn’t working for us...Don Quixote. Complicated ideas and language. Some people found it hysterical, but others felt inadequate about not understanding it right away. We don’t like to induce nonpositive experience feelings in people, so it had to go.”

While these sentiments are cogent, they come off preachy. The novel’s concluding messages are clear:  “Reality is what you make of it...To live is to love, to love is to live...Why not be who you are?”  That Cameron manifests this in dream and not waking life is troubling. Cameron, passive and apathetic (“no expectations, no disappointments,” is his credo), gains agency through his dream and learns to appreciate life through dying. How far the reader has come will be made manifest in the Everlasting Snack and Bowl.