Allen and Unwin (2010)
Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts, Syndicated May 2010
Going Bovine is an amazing, heartbreaking, impossible book. How do you write a comedy about a dying teenage boy? Honestly, how do you do that? How do you write a road trip adventure that might not really be happening, and yet maintain tension and drama throughout? How do you turn a garden gnome into a dignified and heroic mythic warrior?
Impossible. And yet Libba Bray has pulled it off.
I made some entirely false assumptions about this book. One of which was that it was mainstream YA – which is arguably is, and yet has so much to say about science fiction and quests and fantasy and magic, that reading it purely as ‘mainstream’ fiction is to do it a disservice.
It’s a classic story (worthy, as Kelly Link says on the back cover, of cult status) of a slacker, stoner youth who never got around to really living, and gets one last chance to have a joyous, epic adventure and figure out what life is really all about. (It’s about how reality is cruel, and most people don’t get that chance.)
It’s a story about how pop culture and particularly science fiction and fantasy provides a road map for teenagers (and the rest of us) to navigate the hard, impossible, awful things that come out of nowhere.
It’s about the fantasies we construct for ourselves, and the fascinating beauty of the subconscious mind. It’s about parallel universes and physics and norse myth and angels and love and nothing being as it seems. It’s about a seventeen-year-old boy with a dwarf sidekick, trying to save the world and himself. It’s about how music matters, and science fiction matters, and how the best parts of being alive are not necessarily the simple things, or the happy things, or the easy things.
It features an unreliable narrator with a brain disease, and treats him with such carefulness and subtlety that we see all his flaws, and layers to the story that even he is not aware of.
It’s one of the most thought provoking books I’ve read in a long time.
It’s the 21st century’s answer to the Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland, the Wizard of Oz and Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, with added jazz music, quantum physics, New Orleans and Disneyland.
The only aspect of the book which gave me pause was the fake pop culture references – from films and film characters to computer games and tv icons. I understand the appeal of writing fake pop culture into teen books – I’ve done it myself – but the fact that each fake reference was immediately recognisable for its real world counterpart threw me out of the story from time to time. Making up a different version of MTV and particularly celebrities and current crazes is one thing – I can see that this helps with preventing a book from ‘dating’. However, replacing more classic technology (Gameboys) and particularly the insertion of a retro cult SF film that takes the iconic place of Star Wars in the pop culture landscape but isn’t actually Star Wars did ring a little false, especially when Disney World and everything it stood for was left intact.
This certainly wasn’t enough to spoil the book for me, though, and the references are obvious enough that they never get in the way of the story, or the message, or the awesome characters.
By the time I got to the last quarter of the book, I was terrified, because I was in love with Cameron and his mates and his adventures and I didn’t want it to end. No matter how fun the ride was, I couldn’t see how I was going to get a happy ending. But I put my faith in Libba Bray, and was rewarded with a magnificent reading experience.
Read Bray’s response to winning the prestigious Printz award, because it’s adorable. Then check out her awesome, impossible road trip of a novel, or give it to the too-smart-for-their-own-good teenager in your life.