Going Bovine by Libba Bray

wherein Bodhi does not write a
review ~ just a blogspurt

In my current search for books in the new-weird genre, I came across Going Bovine by Libba Bray, which depicts a wild, hallucinatory road trip across America in search of a mad-cow-disease cure for high-school-stoner Cameron Smith. It was okay ~ I’m glad I read it, and I’m doing my best to appreciate it for what it is ~ but these events-driven narratives are just not really my bag.

I say ‘events-driven’ narrative because I can’t really say the book was plot-driven, and it definitely wasn’t character-driven: the plot is deliberately implausible, and the characters are a bit two-dimensional, except for Cameron, although his surname is the bog-standard Smith, which suggests that Bray didn’t think too much into whether this character would have any nuances to distinguish him from any other high-school-stoner stereotype. He’s a smart kid, but a lot of the time his elaborate reflections on the nature of life, love and the universe make him feel more like a vehicle for Bray’s ideas than a character in his own right. The events he has to go through to arrive at places where such reflections might feel plausible are the driving force in this story, and if you’re okay with that, you’ll enjoy it.

I recently read China Miéville’s novel Un Lun Dun, which employs a similar approach to narrative, and these types of books continue a long and esteemed tradition including Hitch-hiker’s Guide (which is referenced in blurb quotes on the edition I read) and the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett. I’m sure we could include the Arabian Nights in this tradition as well, and even the Bible in all of its radical implausibility. Going Bovine also fits into what I would characterise as the ‘ideas novel’, where ideas are more important than plot or character. But unfortunately this novel just doesn’t live up to the standards of these traditions.

It’s too long, for starters. I love a good long novel, but I don’t go in for length resulting from sloppy plotting, and at almost 500 pages, it wasn’t until around chapter ten that the first real premise of the story was mentioned: Cameron has mad cow disease, and is informed by a punk-angel called Dulcie that he must find Dr X, the parallel-dimension-hopping physicist who accidentally created a wormhole and released the prions that are causing the disease and jeopardising the fabric of reality. (Yep, he’s called Dr X, and this is just one of the many instances where Bray seems to have used placeholder names in a novel-writing template, then forgot to come back and edit the fields with something more unique. Drs A, T, O, and M are pretty cool though.)

Cameron then convinces Gonzo, a Little Person of Mexican descent, to come with him for the journey ~ Gonzo repeatedly complains that it’s a stupid idea, but goes along anyway, threatening to phone his mum and call the whole thing off, but then never actually doing it, to the point where I began to understand that this was just a flawed device for creating character tension, which immediately dissipated once I realised that no amount of complaining was actually going to be met with follow-through: if the character acted on his feelings, Bray wouldn’t have a sidekick for Cameron.

And the prion-actions that are causing Cameron’s debilitating disease, which would otherwise prevent him from going to the toilet on his own, let alone trek across America … these are held at bay by a too-convenient wristband. So the book starts (after too many preliminary chapters) with a deus ex machina, which was a red flag I chose to ignore because I was hoping the shonky plotting and characterisation would be worth it for the ideas.

Alas, the hijinks they go through are funny (they rescue a kidnapped garden gnome who believes he is the Norse god Balder, destroy a chain restaurant trying to escape the fire giants who got through the wormhole and are trying to kill them, and sabotage a happiness cult by unwittingly causing a ‘reality revolution’), but I just didn’t care because the characters are templates and their story is nothing more than a vehicle for Bray’s surface-level ruminations on the many-world’s interpretation of quantum physics, which I so desperately wanted to enjoy because it’s one of my favourite subjects, and something I’d like to … *ahem* … enfold in the novel manuscript I’m working on. So I was bummed that I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as I was hoping I would.

So yeah, I read this as research as much as for leisure, and it’s going on the inspiration pile because it’s New Weird (part quantum-sci-fi, part urban-mythological-fantasy, part bildungsroman, part tragi-comedy, part YA, all roadtrip), but it’s going on the how-not-to-write pile, simply because this is just not my kind of book. It’s not the sort of book I want to write, because it’s not the sort of book I enjoy reading very much. I enjoyed it, on some levels, but not on enough levels that I would aspire to even read it again, let alone write something like it. I don’t mean to sound harsh ~ it’s just not for me. It’s not a terrible book, but it’s not a great book either.

That said, the conclusion is surprisingly well-constructed and effective. The ending is described on All the Tropes as being a ‘gainax ending’, meaning an ending that doesn’t make sense, but it does make sense in the context of Cameron’s/Bray’s appropriately-half-formed ideas about life after death. So I enjoyed the ending a lot, because it’s not neatly resolved and it’s not exactly a happy ending. The book didn’t need to spend 500 pages getting there, but I’m glad it go there in the end. If you’re into easy-reading pan-genre New Weird strangeness and you like watching high-school stoners do implausible things and learn a few basic insights along the way, check it out.

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