Monday, August 22, 2011

14 Writers' Book Talk: Going Bovine by Libba Bray

Today marks the first of our Writers' Book Talks, and the first book we're going to do is
Libba Bray's Going Bovine
. Here's what Goodreads has about it:

Going Bovine by Libba Bray

All 16-year-old Cameron wants is to get through high school—and life in general—with a minimum of effort. It’s not a lot to ask. But that’s before he’s given some bad news: he’s sick and he’s going to die. Which totally sucks. Hope arrives in the winged form of Dulcie, a loopy punk angel/possible hallucination with a bad sugar habit. She tells Cam there is a cure—if he’s willing to go in search of it. With the help of a death-obsessed, video-gaming dwarf and a yard gnome, Cam sets off on the mother of all road trips through a twisted America into the heart of what matters most.

On a slightly unrelated note, the above paragraph, would make a great query letter, wouldn't it? It sets up the plot, the inciting incident, and the main characters, and it even gives you a good idea of the voice in which the story is told.

What the summary above doesn't set us up for is that the story tips its hat to Cervantes' Don Quixote de La Mancha, but twists that around to very overtly give us a microcosm of some issues facing kids today. In the Cervantes story, the antihero, Don Quixote, read too many novels and overdosed on chivalry, honor, glory, and knights errant much the way kids (and many adults) today overdose on video games or movies. Convinced the real world sucks because it doesn't live up to his expectations, Don Quixote sets off to win some glory of his own in honor of the fair peasant maiden Dulcinea. Accompanied and constantly berated by his skewed perception of the world and his trusty "squire" Pancho, Don Quixote creates nothing but disaster for everyone he tries to help at first. All the while that he battles through his adventures, we see Don Quixote's madness. Even he seems dimly aware of it in brief glimpses of sanity, until eventually, he comes to see the world more realistically at the end and, declaring himself sane, makes us wonder if he ever was crazy or only faking. Cervantes pulls off a masterpiece of slight-of-hand, leaving the reader constantly questioning.

Libba Bray achieves a similar bit of trickery. We're never quite sure whether her stoner antihero, Cameron, is lying in a hospital bed slowly having his brain eaten away by mad cow disease, or if he is in fact running around saving the world. The closer he comes to death, the more he becomes engaged in life, in his family, and in the love he starts to feel for Dulcie, the angel who guides him, watches him, and ultimately needs saving herself. But as with Don Quixote's Dulcinea, we're never completely sure if Dulcie or anything Cameron sees is real. There are glimpses of events in the hospital that break through into the quest action (hero's journey) throughout the book, but then there are several places, the phone calls to the parents, for example, where reality and quest intersect in ways that can't be explained. In the same way that Cervantes uses Don Quixote to show his readers the lack of chivalry and morality that has pervaded their world, Libba Bray shows young adults the follies of floating through life, of disengaging. Her lessons aren't subtle, and that's another way she breaks the rules.

Agents and editors tell us not to do the Wizard of Oz, it-was-only-a-dream, endings. Libba pulls it off because she does it in a way that is unique and integral to the story. It's not a gimmick, and it doesn't leave the reader feeling betrayed. Maybe that's the key to breaking "the rules."

What do you think? Can you think of other rules this book has broken? Things that might appear to be plot holes but could very well be intentional? How writers can/should/shouldn't break rules in general?

What did you like about this book? What didn't you like? What lessons did you learn as a reader? As a writer?

Let's talk so we can all learn! Looking forward to hearing what you have to say,


P.S., I'll pick a lucky winner at random from those participating in the discussion. The winner will get a copy of Libba Bray's current book, Beauty Queens. So leave your thoughts before Thursday when we will get together to pick next Monday's book!


  1. I've heard so much about this book, and I think you've convinced me to move it up my TBR list. Sounds really amazing!

  2. Loathed the idea of the book, the execution and the content. This is one of those books that gets a reputation for being deep or meaningful not because of its own merit, but rather because someone decided that anything this convoluted and "edgy" (as in needlessly vile) must be beyond the comprehension of your average reader. It's not.

  3. Anonymous,

    Have to say I loathe anonymous comments. If you don't have the courage to say what you have to say and be open about it, not sure it needs saying here. But that said (sorry, couldn't resist) I do understand your point, and I'm not ordinarily a fan of those kind of books either. But I wouldn't lump Going Bovine in with those. It's too tongue-in-cheek, and too much just plain fun. From the first line to the end of the book, there are just too many laugh-out-loud moments, too many brilliant lines pointing out the absurdity of the world around us and the things that we (humans collectively) have done to ourselves and each other.

    I will confess that I loved the first line, read the first few chapters then put it down for a LONG time. The first chapters are kind of slow, and Cameron is definitely an antihero. I kept waiting for things to happen, not realizing until later what Libba Bray was doing within those opening chapters. Once I picked it up again and settled in for the ride, I loved it.

    I didn't read this because it parallels Don Quixote, or because it's a great, wacky example of how to twist a hero's journey, or any other erudite, high-brow reasons. I loved it because Libba Bray is wickedly funny, because I can't resist the idea of a Norse god trapped in the body of a garden gnome, and Emily Dickenson's idea of angels as hope. I love the thought that we trap ourselves in snowglobe vignettes. And for so many more reasons I can't name them all.

    Sure, there are some things that make you question. One I didn't bring up earlier and I'm sure someone else will point out, was the idea that a bunch of physicists would let Cameron do what they did let him do. (Remind me to tell you all the story of my dad, the nuclear physicist, letting my then 5-year-old daughter ride her bike to her friend's house 1 mile away while he was babysitting.) Or any of the other things that Libba put in there. Are these deliberate nudges to let us know that we aren't really along on a physical journey? That's part of the fun.

    No one, least of all Libba Bray, I suspect, is suggesting that this is beyond the average reader. She wrote a story and invited us with a wink, a nudge, and a shove, to look around at where we are. Monty Python does the same thing. I think they are both brilliant. If we can't laugh at ourselves, we need to pack up our toys and go home.

  4. Humm sounds like a good read! Thanks.

  5. I agree: the paragraph has the makings of a great query. It's hooked me into wanting to read more, which is the whole point.

    -- Tom

  6. Libba reminds me of a YA John Irving. The characters are off the wall but with very real elements, fears, situations. It's enough out there to be very funny and there is a deeper meaning underlying it all.

    I find the surrealism to be refreshing and engaging. Maybe not everyone's cuppa, but, then again, what is?

    I already have and read Beauty Queens. Loved it even more. It's the feminist in me, I suppose.

    Sarah Laurenson
    (P.S. Sorry to be Anonymous. Blogger isn't liking me this morning)

  7. Sarah,

    That's a great point about the real elements and fears of the characters grounding the surreal and fantastical elements of the plot. I think most truly successful fantasies have characters who are more "real" and relatable even than many contemporary characters.

    What do you all think? Is this an important element of fantasy?

  8. I've heard so many great things about this book - and it's been on my wishlist for ages. I've got to get to it! :)

  9. Ooo! I'd love to read BEAUTY QUEENS. :) What a cool opportunity!

    I hadn't read GOING BOVINE yet so Friday I ran around looking for it in local bookstores (gah! southern Oregon is a dearth of bookstores, but I digress) as well as the library. The ONLY copy for the entire county was checked out at the library, as was the e-copy. Sigh.

    So I did the next best thing--Amazon! They actually have the first 100 pages there under "Look Inside" with a page missing every 7 pages or so (not a big deal). Thus, I didn't get to read the entirety, or the end, but I read up to the point where Cameron's in the hospital and the dwarf kid is his roomie.

    Anyway, when I first started reading the book, I remembered I'd read the first 2 chapters once, and had enjoyed Libba Bray's IMMENSELY creative writing style. Ho!--so funny and what a wicked wit she has. She has an imagination and a half. But I remember not liking the language and off-color stuff; I tend to be less enthusiastic about books that constantly drop F-bombs and make references to a guy's physical reactions to seeing a hot girl. I just don't see it as necessary in YA--but then, others may argue that it makes it more realistic. *shrug* Just my personal preference. This is probably what the first Anonymous was referring too--trying to be "edgy" and hip while really just being crass. I'd rather read and create literature without being crass (tho yes, it can be humorous, along the lines of Monty Python and Austin Powers).

    Fascinating, about the journey and how it was dreamlike, and might not have happened. I don't think I would've minded that in THIS novel; I wouldn't have felt "cheated" or tricked. So Libba did that well. I still REALLY wanted to know how Cameron got the mad cow disease, even though I know it's not the point of the story! ;o)

    I'd agree that truly successful fantasies have very REAL characters. The world is ultra real, and the characters too. That's related to the skill of the writer, to bring it all to life in colorful 3D!

    Okay, I've blathered on enough. :)

  10. Loved Going Bovine. Love Libba Bray. She does YA voice like nobody's business!

  11. I'm actually surprised by the amount of negativity in the negative reviews I've read on the book. I thought it was wonderful. I think Libba Bray has a wicked sense of humor that shines through in her characters.

    I'd never read a book quite like this one so in my review on Goodreads I compared it to a couple of movies it reminded me of, Big Fish and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. Both of which are a bit mystical and handle some difficult subjects with humor.

  12. I run a Not-So-Young Adult Book Club at the library I work at, and used this book for my first meeting! We had a ton to talk about it...lots of issues are brought up in this novel, and I found it to be a great one for a book club for adults and teens.

  13. Lisa, That is a great comment. It did have that kind of strong energy, didn't it? Thanks for making me start thinking about it that way.

    Anne, I completely agree. She is among the most creative, imaginative writers working today, mind-boggling really. And she "gets" voice in a way that leaves me awed.

    libguru, it's fantastic that you have a group that can talk about a book like this. I'm jealous! :D

  14. I like your review :D Here's mine if you don't mind:

    Thanks and have a nice day!


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)