Libba Bray’s Going Bovine ends better than it begins, but, nonetheless, ends with a journey to nowhere. The lead character, Cameron, discovers his life (like all humans) in the process of losing it. Unlike most humans, however, this discovery is made under the influence of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease–the human version of mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Prior to the diagnosis, Cameron is an apathetic, sarcastic, suburbanite, teenager. In the first sixty pages or so, readers learn just enough about his “friends”, his musical tastes, his parents, and his early childhood, to sustain another 420 pages of his BSE inspired hallucinations.
With his brain rotting in his skull, “mad” Cameron, is a much nicer guy. Also, he “has” more fun. His hallucinatory journey mirrors the adventures of Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha. Like DQ, Cameron has a guiding muse, a diminutive side kick, an unreliable means of transportation, and demonic adversaries. Unlike DQ, who actually wanders the Spanish countryside, evangelizing for his vision of a chivalric order, Cameron’s body never leaves the hospital bed. Except for the rotting brain and an occasional drip from the IV, his body has no part in the last 400 pages of the book. Although Cameron has a lot of imagined fun and the book ends on a happy note, the wet dreams are dry. In his hallucinations, the once apathetic teenager discovers that living is loving: “to live is to love and to love is to live”. And so, his Sancho becomes a braver soul; the social snobs are undone; he listens to good music, reads better books, and goes on a road trip, and (most importantly) sacrifices his own well-being for the good of his compadres. … Achievements all, but achieved only in the brain burning haze of Cameron’s imagination.
If, therefore, readers are to take Going Bovine seriously, by which I mean, to read it as more than a parlor trick, more than an improv-styled assembly of loosely disguised elements from “popular culture” for teenagers, the book ends not far from where it begins: a selfish character discovers himself in an equally selfish “life” of the mind. In the book’s closing chapter, Cameron, fading from physical life, asks his Dulcinea, “Hey, Dulcie, was any of that real?” She replies: “Who’s to say what’s real or not?” Beyond Cameron’s BSE self, “reality” has only a small part in the novel. We learn very little about the “real” people in his life and Cameron is mostly oblivious to how they carry with him the burden of his illness. Cameron is lost to them; lost in apathy, lost in illness. Who’s to say what’s real? Perhaps, that task should be left to the people who outlive you. Yes, Cameron had a great “ride”, but it was, in the end, nothing more than a self-indulgent, fruitless, adolescent trip.
Reading what I have just written, I see that most will conclude that I did not like the book. This is only partly true. In “reality”, I hope that it finds plenty of young readers. Going Bovine, the winner of the 2010 The Michael L. Printz Award, is more than a clever book. I would put it before Harry Potty, before Twilight and spawn, before (in other words) most of the escapist, corn syrup publishers market to “young adult” readers. Like most books, however, Going Bovine is a long, long, long way from Don Quixote.
Read Don Quixote.