You know, mad cow disease kind of speaks to me. I mean, the degrees of separation between it and me are pretty few. It’s like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon thing. Or just the six degrees thing. Mad cow disease is sort of center of the universe for me, one of those things that I can trace back to from pretty far away. It’s two reasons, really. 1) My parents did the England-during-mad-cow-crisis thing and so are forbidden to give blood, which, surprise, is not that big of a deal because it would take quite the leap of faith for them to do it anyway (read: needle phobia) and 2) I’m from Alberta which is basically the Canadian epicenter of mad cow disease. A quick google search brings up quite a few disturbing and also entertaining quotes about why its existence is a fallacy, like the western Canadian equivalent of those who deny the reality of global warming.
Libba Bray’s Going Bovine melted my small heart. I held up the book and was like, “This! This is the connecting part that puts everything together! Things make sense now!” It makes the mad cow disease sound like a gimmick, the way I’ve introduced this, but Going Bovine was one of my favorite books that I read in the last year. I mean, I’m not the only one who thinks this. Bray’s book won the Prinz Award in 2010, and those Prinz Award books, they’re the ones that are always pretty awesome to read. The novel follows Cameron, the sixteen-year-old protagonist who contracts mad cow disease. Cameron slides into a hallucinatory/real/dream world structured on a lot of Norse mythology, the culture of reality television, and the very old standby, Disney World. It’s one of those books that blurs that real/imaginary border, that one with the devastating ending where you realize you have to decide for yourself if you’re going to err on the side of reality or instead go ahead and realize that fiction leaves a lot of room for the imaginary. It’s not “choose your own adventure” (good god, those Steve Jackson books that sent you from page 3 to 178 and then back to 9 again when you totally opened the wrong door and got killed by some troll and had to start again), it’s just a subtle reader’s choice that follows through the reading of the novel.
The book reads in part as a travel narrative – accompanied by his friend Gonzo, Cam embarks on a quest across the United States. But it’s the cultural critiques and points of interest that Bray chooses to highlight that sets this book apart. They allow for the subtleties that create corridors and trap doors in the book, which are opened up through an allusion, reference, and character. The novel relies heavily on the canonical Don Quixote. The contemporary and the traditional talk back and forth with one another, and you know what? Sometimes they really get going and you kind of have a feeling like maybe they’ve had an argument like this before, only it’s never been quite so well articulated. Bray’s nuanced and idiosyncratic voice seems like the only vehicle for the ideas explored in Going Bovine. She throws herself completely into this world and builds it up with nerdy references, traditional allusions, pop culture, mythology, and a ridiculously believable teenage narrator. The chapter headings kind of set the stage for how excellent this book is. My favorite is probably chapter three, “Which Treats of the Particulars of High School Hallway Etiquette and the Fact that Staci Johnson is Evil; Also, Unfairly Hot.”
And then there’s Dulcie, the angel that appears to Cam and helps him out on his quest. She’s pretty awesome. She’s the female counterpart necessary to this book, with a great voice and a pretty no-nonsense attitude.
I totally misread the first chapter, though. That’s always kind of been one of my biggest fears as an English student, like, “Oh hey, what if I get this wrong? What if the color grey does not actually symbolize death and also hopelessness like I thought, but instead I just skipped the sentence at the beginning of the book that said grey just so happens to be the favorite color of the protagonist? So, whoops, I guess that changes the entire thing.” Because English is all about right answers, even if you can do a pretty good job of just writing a ton and eventually hitting on a couple of important points. No matter how much hinges on “Interpretation!” there is most certainly something like a Right and a Wrong answer. So I read the first chapter thinking Cameron was a girl. Which might’ve been awesome. But a book like Going Bovine, I don’t think there’s anything to improve on. I mean, least of all the cover art.