Going Bullshit

by Robinson L

Robinson L tears into Libba Bray's Going Bovine and makes several unflattering comparisons to the works of Melina Marchetta, Catherine Fisher, and Douglas Adams
One of the accolades Melina Marchetta's On the Jellicoe Road received on publication was the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in Young Adult literature. That was for 2009. In 2010, the award went to a book entitled Going Bovine by Libba Bray. After reading Going Bovine, I can only conclude that 2010 was an exceptionally dry year for Young Adult fiction.

The book starts out promisingly, with our protagonist, Cameron Smith, narrating a near-death experience he had at Disneyland when he was five years old. Bray's writing is evocative, and she really nails the fuzzy, almost dreamlike logic with which a five-year-old views the world.

Then we snap to the present, twelve years later, and things go downhill fast. Cameron is now seventeen years old, a jerk, and a loser. Taylor Markham of On the Jellicoe Road can be an asshole as well, but she’s always dynamic and interesting—whereas Cameron Smith is the kind of jerk you just want to slap about the face until he gets over himself already.

It takes an irritatingly long time to get there, but things finally pick up when Cameron gets diagnosed with Cruetzfeldt-Jakob (“mad cow”) disease, which will kill him in a matter of weeks. An angel with a punk aesthetic named Dulcie visits Cameron in the hospital and kicks off the novel's plot, which is that a mad scientist named Doctor X has opened a dimensional hole which threatens to destroy the universe, and it's up to Cameron to find him and convince him to close it again. Oh, and Cameron's mad cow disease is actually a byproduct of this dimensional hole, and Doctor X is the only person in the universe who has the cure.

Okay, a quest to save the world/universe/multiverse from complete destruction is cool and all, but in context it jars with everything that's gone before—there's been plenty of supernatural build-up to Dulcie's arrival, but all very magic realist and with a certain amount of ambiguity as to whether Cameron is just suffering from hallucinations due to his Cruetzfeldt-Jakob. Leaping from there straight into a madcap caper to find the one man who can avert the end of the universe as we know it makes the book feel more than anything like a bad 80s Doctor Who story than anything else, except even more incongruous because at least in Doctor Who you kind of expect the fate of the world to be at stake sooner or later.

Anyway, Dulcie gives Cameron a sort of wristwatch which will hold his illness at bay, and sends him off on his grand quest along with his new friend and sidekick Gonzo, a hypochondriac dwarf Chicano whom we eventually learn is also gay. Despite Bray playing Minority Bingo, I didn't detect anything terribly problematic with Gonzo's depiction—which isn't the same as saying that there's nothing problematic there—though I did notice his tendency as a Latino to, as our friends at Unskippable put it, slip into Spanish every other word. They later form a trio with the Norse God Balder, who has been trapped in the body of a lawn gnome (it's a surreal book). Balder is easily the best character in the story, so of course he dies toward the end in an event which was transparently foreshadowed early on when he randomly initiates a discussion of Viking Funerals.

Prompted by Dulcie, they set off on a series of bizarre real-world adventures with supernatural overtones which vary in quality from kind of cool to teeth-gratingly bad. My problem here is that for the most part, Cameron has no real plan: he has to find Doctor X, but he has no strategy for doing so, nor does he really develop one over the course of the story. Throughout the novel, Cameron and company just stumble barse-ackwards into one misadventure after another. Now if at some point he decided that he's better off just going with the flow and adopted that as a strategy, it could be kind of cool, and totally in keeping with the unplanned, structureless feel to the plot. Instead, while Cameron can be reasonably proactive when it comes to addressing the problems of a given situation, he's almost entirely reactive when it comes to moving the overall plot forward, as if his player is so profoundly uninterested in the main plot that he has to be constantly railroaded through it by the Author-GM. For the reader, the effect is less of an inexorably and inevitably unfolding series of events than a slightly disjointed bunch of interesting incidents inexpertly welded together.

Even if Cameron were more of a proactive character though, we'd still be a far cry from Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. In the “Dirk Gently” books, Douglas Adams was able to make bizarre coincidences feel like part of some grand, cosmic pattern which all fits together in an overarching harmony. In Going Bovine, Libba Bray's use of bizarre coincidences feels more like a lazy plot device to move the story along. The coincidences get a kind of explanation later on though, as we'll see.

Another problem is that it feels very much as though Bray never actually settled what tone she wanted to strike with the book, the upshot in this case being that much of the stuff that happens in Going Bovine is too grounded in reality to write off as parody or farce, yet too silly and over-the-top to take seriously.

One of the biggest offenders in this regard is Bray's occasional dips into social commentary—which might actually have been a good thing if someone had only come along in the revision process and persuaded her to step away from the bloody Themehammer. As it is, Cameron's school, where the teachers tell the students just to concentrate on the test material and not bother trying to learn the subject, represents the book's zenith of subtle and believable discourse. Pretty extreme, but sadly plausible.

Then there's Cameron's encounter with a therapist after his first major fit, and before everybody learns about his Cruetzfeldt-Jakob. School officials suspect drug use, and send him to a counselor—she asks him one question: “are you on drugs?” and when he tells her (truthfully) “no,” she proceeds to take up the rest of the hour reminiscing about bad trips she had when she was younger; at the end of which she tells him she thinks they made a lot of progress in that session, admonishes him not to take drugs, and refers him to a specialist. I find the lack of professionalism at work in this scene appalling—granted, that's sort of the point, but apparently, the only way Bray could think of to depict the problems of the psychiatric profession is by creating a cartoon caricature who is ignorant of the most basic, fundamental rule of counseling (i.e. that you listen to your patient). I've no doubt such people are out there, and some of them might just have licenses to practice—but Bray is sadly mistaken if she thinks pointing out the extreme wing-nuts of a profession makes any sort of point about the general practice.

The specialist she refers Cameron to examines him like an actual fecking professional and gives him a prescription for antidepressants, prompting Cameron to narrate ironically that he went to a therapist who didn't listen to him and told him to stay off drugs and then referred him to a health specialist who did listen to him and who put him on drugs. I found that observation quite funny, and there's actually a great point buried in there, but paired with the Nation's Worst Ever Therapist it loses most of its edge.

And then there's the most painful sequence of the book: Cameron's misadventures with the Church of Everlasting Satisfaction and Snack-'N'-Bowl (CESSNAB). Despite its name, CESSNAB gives no signs of being a religious or spiritual organization: it's more of a secular commune for spoiled, self-indulgent, privileged twenty-somethings to indulge a doctrine so goofy, UFO cults probably laugh at it behind its back. The doctrine is basically: “Be happy, and everything will be all right, and you can do anything you put your mind to,” along with the removal from people's lives of anything which is construed as threatening to make them unhappy, per their slogan which makes me cringe whenever I think about it: “Don't hurt your happiness.” (I think just typing that relieved me of two or three braincells.) So basically, a community with utopian aspirations that's actually a tightly-controlled dystopia, but so blatant that even an utter fool could see through it in nothing flat.

It wouldn't be so bad, except that Cameron is not only an utter fool, but a complete idiot on top of that, and falls for CESSNAB's transparent bullshit hook, line, and sinker. This subjects the reader to pages and pages of Bray wringing out a line of discourse which was obvious to anyone with anything approaching what we would call sapience the moment CESSNAB trotted out their philosophy, culminating in this spectacular piece of dialogue spoken to Cameron by a sort-of revolutionary just before she brings the whole organization crashing down:

“What if those so-called 'negative feelings' are useful?”

My tiny mind is fecking blown.

Seriously, Bray? The book is aimed at older teens, and this particular piece of discourse would be patronizing to ten-year-olds. Offhand, I can't think of the last time I've encountered a book which has so completely insulted my intelligence.

This is the most egregious incident, but it isn't the last one. Later on, Cameron encounters a Wishing Tree, which Dulcie explains really works, but it gives you what you want in your heart, rather than what you literally asked for. This strikes me as a stupendously sensible way to have a wishing machine operate; whereas Cameron complains that it ought to grant wishes literally. Dude, have you never read The Monkey's Paw? All right, fair enough, neither have I, but have you never encountered the concept of “be careful what you wish for”? Just how big of a rock have you been living under your whole life?

As in the previous incident, Bray situates Cameron in the position of Reader Surrogate so that the more knowledgeable character is not only lecturing him about the frickin' obvious, she's lecturing me. If Bray wants her protagonist to be a dumbass, that's totally legit, but treating the reader like a dumbass along with him—uh-uh.

While the sheer idiocy of the CESSNAB sequence and the general condescension are deplorable, it's the ending which ultimately sinks Going Bovine. Cameron tracks down Doctor X, who refuses to help him save the universe because of his generically tragic backstory, and so much for that plot thread. Before Cameron can try something else, his time runs out on his disease and he's confronted by the story's villain, the Wizard of Reckoning (which, as villain names go, is pretty friggin' awesome). After the Wizard drops a bombshell which I will come to presently, the two embark upon an esoteric chase sequence which it will take a much smarter or more inebriated head than my own to make sense of. The chase ends with Cameron pulling out the End-Of-The-Book-Emergency-Plot-Device he picked up towards the beginning of his adventures, thus apparently banishing the Wizard of Reckoning and waking Cameron up.

… Yes, you read that right. The epic twist which the Wizard of Reckoning reveals is that Cameron's been in his hospital bed dying of Cruetzfeldt-Jakob this whole time, and all his adventures with Gonzo, Balder, and Dulcie were an elaborate hallucination cooked up by his subconscious. Now Cameron's time is up, though, and the Wizard challenges him to accept his fate and die peacefully.[1]

The story closes with Cameron reflecting on how the hallucination gave him the chance to really experience life for the first time, and then finding Dulcie in the afterlife and hooking up with her—maybe. I'll let Dan summarize my thoughts on this conclusion: “The only thing worse than an 'it was all a dream' ending is an 'it was all a dream … OR WAS IT?' ending.”

Granted, this didn't come completely out of left field. It was technically foreshadowed by a couple of weird flashes Cameron has back to his sister and their parents during his adventures—though since several of these flashes show him events outside of his hospital room, they don't exactly support the interpretation that these are moments of him seeing what's “really” going on. But even if it was foreshadowed, it doesn't change the fact that at the eleventh hour, Bray snatches away the ultimate goal Cameron has been striving for throughout the bulk of the book and replaces it with—nothing, really, or at least, nothing that's at all comprehensible to non-lit majors. As anti-climaxes go, that's pretty epic.

It may be useful to compare the ending of Catherine Fisher's Corbenic. As with most of Fisher's work, I took a while to warm to Corbenic, but I enjoyed the ending, and didn't feel the least bit cheated by it, even though it could be fairly characterized as “and then I woke up and it was all a dream … OR WAS IT?” I think Corbenic works for a couple of reasons, none of which are applicable to Going Bovine. First, because the ambiguity in the former does not totally derail either of the textually supported interpretations: if you choose to believe all the magic stuff is real and Cal really has found a mystical grail which will heal the fisher king, there's plenty of interpretive space for you. Second, because the possibility that the magic is a delusion on Cal's part is not treated as an eleventh hour plot twist, but is rather a running theme throughout the book. And third, because the goal Cal has been striving for still has value even if you choose to believe he's hallucinating—you don't go through the whole book with him trying to reach a specific point, only to have that point rendered irrelevant and swept aside at the last minute.

Next to everything else, I don't greatly mind that the book has a tragic ending, but let's not kid ourselves: this isn't On the Jellicoe Road, where tragic elements are inextricably bound up with the beauty and power of the story. This is Going Bovine, the story of a young jerk who learns something of what it means to be alive, to accept the necessity of death, and then dies—it could just as easily have been the story of a young jerk who learns something of what it means to be alive, and goes on to live a nicer, happier, more meaningful life, without it making a lick of difference to the rest of the book. The tragic ending doesn't actively harm the story, but it certainly doesn't enhance it.[2]

The book has its good points, but they're massively outweighed by the structural issues and the painful attempts at social commentary, and that's even before we factor in the ghastly ending. It still may have some value as a curiosity—many of the ideas in there strike me as pretty unique and imaginative—but in the final analysis it fails as a narrative, which is perhaps the worst failure a work of literature can commit. I suppose folks who are into surrealist adventures and don't mind “and it turned out it was all a dream … OR WAS IT?” endings may still find it worth a read, despite the condescending and ham-fisted social commentary, but to everyone else, I encourage you to do yourself a favor and don't bother.

[1]This raises the rather glaring question of why Bray treats Cameron's defeat of the Wizard of Reckoning as such a big deal, as he then goes on to do exactly what the Wizard had been telling him to do anyway.
[2]Actually, the fact that I don't strongly care whether Cameron lives or dies is pretty damning in its own right.

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 18:18 on 2014-03-17
Wow, that does sound messy. It feels from your review like there's a whole mess of stuff in there which might have been interesting treated in isolation but doesn't really belong all thrown together in the same pot. (In particular, "let's have wacky adventures with a magic dwarf and a garden gnome - by the way, the punchline is terminal illness" feels like a wonky premise to begin with.)

Out of interest, how long is the book in terms of page count, and how deep in do you get before the whole Doctor X deal kicks off?
Alice at 18:43 on 2014-03-17
You know, I read this book a couple of years ago, but I'd completely forgotten everything about it except for vague memories of Dulcie and Gonzo. The little that I do remember about the book meshes pretty well with this review, though, and I certainly remember disliking it.

The worst thing about it was that -- despite all the wacky shenanigans -- I just found it really dull. And I can forgive a book many things, but I find it very hard to forgive being bored by a book, especially if I'm not getting anything else out of it.
http://ronanwills.wordpress.com/ at 00:15 on 2014-03-18
Maybe I'm just not intellectual enough, but I tend to be immediately put off by surrealist novels. Basically if the back cover blurb reads like a string of random bullshit (this book has robots! and time travel! and parallel dimensions and talking walruses named Steve who are also stock brokers and Santa Claus fighting a cyclops and) then I stay far, far away.

So this sounds like the sort of thing that would drive me absolutely batshit insane. It's not even that stories like this tend to be confusing, it's that for all their wild and wacky imagery I find them incredibly boring. I'm not entirely sure why- maybe it's just because there's so little to actually latch onto emotionally.
Robinson L at 22:36 on 2014-03-18
@Arthur: Yep, pretty messy.

According to wikipedia, it's 496-pages long. Unfortunately, I can't tell you offhand where in that Dulcie appears and starts explaining about the Dr. X stuff, because I listened to the book on CD. I would guess it's within the first 100-125 pages, though.

Alice: I can forgive a book many things, but I find it very hard to forgive being bored by a book, especially if I'm not getting anything else out of it.

Oh, I hear you, there.

I don't think I was too bored by Going Bovine (it's been a while since I read it, now), though I might have been more so if I'd actually had to read it instead of listening on audio.

@ronan: Interesting perspective. Personally, I don't mind surreal so long as it's mostly coherent; if I can follow along with the characters, then I've got something to latch onto emotionally, and that will usually see me through. A lot of Douglas Adams' work, especially his "Dirk Gently" books could be described as surreal, but they're rarely esoteric, and I like them a lot.

To give Bray her due, she keeps Going Bovine mostly on the lefthand side of that ledger. The characters are consistent throughout, and though the events of the novel are often bizarre (again, Norse god turned into talking lawn gnome), the way the characters respond to and interact with the weird elements is plausible enough. I guess what I'm trying to say is that it felt internally consistent to me ... that is, up until final chase and confrontation with the Wizard of Reckoning, where it all fell apart.

From your example, though, I don't think not being an intellectual is the main problem ... it sounds less like "I'm going to do really smart things with metaphor and symbolism and the like" and more like "I'm going to dream up an excuse to throw all these cool ideas into the same story and not bother trying to make it work in terms of plot or character or the like."
James D at 19:47 on 2014-03-19
Has anyone seen the movie Jacob's Ladder? It uses a similar plot device to a certain part of Going Bovine,
namely that Jacob is dying the whole time and the movie is essentially a dream
, except I think it works because
Jacob still has a character arc, his struggles in the coma dream still matter, as they are psychological struggles, like coming to terms with the death of his son, which it is suggested was his reason for abandoning his life as a professor and becoming a postman.
Robinson L at 20:30 on 2014-03-19
I haven't, but I'm prepared to believe that it can be done in such a way that it works.

In fact a lot of what happens in Going Bovine is still meaningful, because Cameron's wish is to live, and the hallucination let him do just that by giving him a ton of interesting and thrilling experiences - which, come to think of it, still sounds more like cleaving to the letter of the wish, rather than following the spirit as Dulcie explained. But the main goal he's given at the beginning of the quest (find Dr. X and convince him to save the universe) is still rendered moot, which is why I consider the book a narrative failure.
Arthur B at 20:52 on 2014-03-19
I think part of what makes Jacob's Ladder work is that it's all about Jacob discovering and coming to terms with the twist, instead of being aware of what the basic problem is all along.

In particular, it's constructed as an argument that coming to terms with the fact that you're at death's door is significant and important, even if nobody ever knows you were reconciled to it except you, for the few seconds you have left before nonexistence beckons. Here Cameron is fully aware that he's got a terminal illness for most of the book, and it sounds like the purpose of his hallucination was not so much to wake him up to the fact of death so much as distract him and keep him entertained for a while until he no longer had the energy to sustain it.
http://ronanwills.wordpress.com/ at 21:33 on 2014-03-19
Jacob's Ladder was a solid idea, but in practice it left me frustrated because the execution of the twist made it feel as if the preceding story was pointless- the film gives the impression of going somewhere right until it ends very abruptly, at which point it becomes clear that everything up until the twist was basically just killing time. I remember individual scenes from that movie very vividly, but I couldn't honestly summarize the plot beyond "weird shit happens to a guy, then the movie ends".

@Robinon L Yeah, I think you articulated more clearly what my problem usually is. There's a certain kind of writer that seems to delight in emptying their mind straight onto the page and giving form to whatever stray idea happens to come to them. I've just never seen the appeal of that kind of story-telling (even The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy got too much for me in places) but a lot of people seem to find it appealing.

An author who (sometimes) does this well is Haruki Murakami. A *lot* of weird things tend to happen in his stranger books, but he generally keeps the reader confident that the plot is actually going somewhere. The exception is Kafka on The Shore, which devolves into incoherent nonsense fairly quickly.

James D at 23:05 on 2014-03-19
Jacob's Ladder was a solid idea, but in practice it left me frustrated because the execution of the twist made it feel as if the preceding story was pointless- the film gives the impression of going somewhere right until it ends very abruptly, at which point it becomes clear that everything up until the twist was basically just killing time. I remember individual scenes from that movie very vividly, but I couldn't honestly summarize the plot beyond "weird shit happens to a guy, then the movie ends".

Well, I've seen the movie a few times now, and I very much disagree. The preceding story is essentially Jacob at first recoiling from the truth - he imagines a future in which he has divorced his wife, left his children, and quit being a professor. He lives with a hot chick he knows from the post office and lives a life of few responsibilities. However, guilt and grief and questioning of that fantasy regularly intrude, in the form of weird events and reminders of the truth - he eventually faces the fact that his son died in a pointless accident and returns to his wife and children, he figures out some sort of explanation for his death in Vietnam (whether or not it's actually true is debatable), and having made his peace he accepts his death. He wouldn't have accepted his death in the end if the previous parts of the movie hadn't established the conflict and the character. It was vehemently not "just killing time."

Now, whether or not you view Jacob's internal psychological struggle to come to terms with tragic events in his life and the uncaringness of the universe in general as relevant is another question entirely.

The movie doesn't really spell any of that out, so a valid criticism might be that it's too subtle, obscures too many important plot points. I don't think so myself, but I'm not trying to imply that anyone who didn't "get it" is stupid. However, it is a film that makes more sense with repeat viewings, and if you didn't enjoy it the first time there's still a good chance you'll enjoy it more the second time.
Sister Magpie at 00:50 on 2014-03-24
I feel the need to weigh in on Jacob's Ladder since I really liked it and agree with James. Though I do understand feeling like the whole story is basically wiped away with the final twist, I read it more the way James did, that everything about Jacob's life was set up to help him come to terms with death and do what he needed to do.

Btw, the chiropractor played by Danny Aiello in that movie is based on a real guy--a chiropractor who, having been to him, actually is a lot like Danny Aiello.
Robinson L at 20:36 on 2015-06-30
So, my sister ptolemaeus recently read another Libba Bray book, Beauty Queens, because, apparently, it's supposed to be an answer to Lord of the Flies.

She ... did not like it. It sounds like the satire was about on par with that of Going Bovine - she said if Bray had just come out and written her points, it probably would have been less heavy-handed.

She also described the book as incredibly tokenistic: among the titular Beauty Queens you have the lesbian one, the deaf one, the Indian one, etc., and all clearly written by an author who is not and does not understand how to write any of those things.
Robinson L at 15:15 on 2016-03-31
Ronan: An author who (sometimes) does this well is Haruki Murakami. A *lot* of weird things tend to happen in his stranger books, but he generally keeps the reader confident that the plot is actually going somewhere. The exception is Kafka on The Shore, which devolves into incoherent nonsense fairly quickly.

Returning to this discussion because I actually just wrapped up listening to an audio recording of Kafka on the Shore a little while ago. And yeah, I got lost and bewildered early in because Murakami frontloads the strange and esoteric stuff pretty heavily. However, I pressed on, and it turns out that later on in the book, most of the really confusing stuff actually does get something approximating an explanation. There's still a strong undercurrent of vagueness and ambiguity surrounding the more supernatural material, but by the end of the book I could understand the basic story just fine. I'm sure there's a lot of rich nuance and subtext which blew right past me because it was too subtle and esoteric for me to apprehend, but I got the basic gist and it made sense, and I'm content with that.
Robinson L at 03:02 on 2016-04-30
Oops, I forgot to mention that though I found Kafka on the Shore satisfactorily comprehensible, and I'm glad I read it, a section later in the book comes with a trigger warning for sexual assault. Granted, it's in a dream sequence and is doubtless part of all the esoteric symbolism which mostly went over my head—and although dreams can seem to effect reality in the universe of the book, the protagonist meets the other character in real life again at the very end, and she shows no signs of having experienced it, which I optimistically take to mean that it was all something which happened just to the protagonist and not really to her—but that doesn't make the scene itself any less problematic and icky, especially with the protagonist's repeated insistence (which in this case appears to be accurate) that he literally cannot stop.
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