Monday, February 1, 2016

Book Review: Going Bovine by Libba Bray

How do you know what’s real and what’s not? At the end of it all, does it really even matter?

In this hilarious dark comedy by award-winning author Libba Bray, readers are faced with one big question: if you were to die of an incurable disease, how would you live your life to the fullest? The crazy yet earnest journey of the protagonist will no doubt make you question whether you’re living your life the way you should, or you’re just wasting away one day at a time.

On the overall plot

“The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World. I'm sixteen now, so you can imagine that's left me with quite a few days of major suckage.”

Cameron Smith is your average disinterested teenager: English teacher mother, father having an affair, perfect sister, invisible at school. While he feels like he is going nowhere, his family keeps trying to convince him that he should take a more active part in his own life. He knows there’s got to be more to living than this, and, after experiencing an intense hallucination of burning flames in English class, Cameron gets sent to drug counselors. The doctors then reveal that he is suffering from Creutzfeldt-Jakob variant BSE—otherwise known as mad cow disease.

Yup. Extremely rare mad cow disease, on him, a normal teenager who supposedly has his whole life ahead of him. And now, all of a sudden, a ticking time bomb drops and his life is cut short.

Cameron knows he only has a few more months to live as the disease eats away at his brain. But one horribly painful night while confined in the hospital, he wakes up from a hallucination and sees a heavenly vision—a beautiful girl with vibrant pink hair and spray-painted wings tells him that the so-called Wizard of Reckoning is out to destroy the world and only Cameron can save it.

So. Go on a wild adventure to look for Dr. X with a pretty punk-rock angel in boots, or stay in the hospital and rot in his bovine disease? Cameron’s choice is obvious.

What follows is a surreal and deeply philosophical journey that pokes fun at our current pop cultures and religious cults while making us wonder what it truly means to live our lives to the fullest. Together with his loyal companions Gonzo the dwarf and Balder the Norse god in a garden gnome form, Cameron battles fire giants, becomes the star of a reality TV show, and dodges international snow globe retailers hell-bent on firing their guns and trapping people in snow globes for the rest of their lives.  

On life’s hard lessons

“I don't think you should die until you're ready. Until you've wrung out every last bit of living you can.”

The most interesting thing about this novel is the fact that there are so many symbolisms and underlying themes that tackle human nature’s tendency to be content to live a mediocre life for fear of any real hardship or danger. It’s easy to stay in your own little snow globe forever, where everything is simple and pristine and safe. But in doing so, you will never know the beauty and wonder of what’s outside, and you’ll miss out on living your life.

In the story, there is also the cult group called the Church of Everlasting Satisfaction and Snack-‘N'-Bowl (CESSNAB)—an obsessive organization of misguided youngsters shutting themselves out from all the pain of the outside world by containing themselves in a bowling alley with unlimited vanilla smoothies and instant high scores. They’ve successfully rid themselves of anything that can hurt anyone’s happiness in this delirious little bubble. Cameron and his friends were almost too tempted to stay there forever—after all, who wants to be miserable and hurting out there when you can be free from all those burdens inside the CESSNAB? But the realization that negative emotions can be useful—crucial, even, to the evolution of the human race—makes Cameron and Gonzo decide that they need to escape the cult and go back to their mission, which, difficult as it may be, actually has real purpose.

On friendship and loyalty

“[Gonzo] has every right to call his mom and head back to Texas, but I hope he won't. The truth is, I've kind of gotten used to his neurotic weirdness, and I'd miss it if he left. Maybe that's what real friendship is—getting so used to people that you need to be annoyed by them.”

It’s one thing to have friends who will stick with you through thick and thin, but it’s another to have pals who will drop everything, go on a death-defying trip with you with no money and no real plan, and be with you until your last breath. Cameron and Gonzo have their disagreements—a lot of them actually—but at the heart of their friendship is true loyalty and brotherhood—the life-saving and life-sacrificing kind. Even Balder, though he only meets Cameron and Gonzo halfway through the adventure, is a true friend who sticks like glue. Readers will find themselves attached to his endearing nature and touched by his bravery that knows no bounds, despite the fact that he is trapped inside the body of a garden gnome. It just goes to show you that big hearts come in small packages.

“’No matter if he has lost his wits completely and speaks like one whom the dogs should tear asunder in a mercy killing,’ Balder continues. ‘This is a quest. I pledged my loyalty to Cameron back on the cul-de-sac. I shall see it through till the end.’”

On reality, life, and death

“’You people slay me,’ she says with a laugh, and there's an edge to it. ‘Always worrying, 'What will happen? What's next?' Always everywhere but where you actually are. You just don't get it…Here. Now. This.’ She gestures wide, turns around. ‘This is it, cowboy. The whole ride. Pay attention.’”

Dulcie, the punk-rock angel who guides Cameron throughout the whole escapade, tells him that there’s no reason to worry about what comes next. The whole point, she emphasizes, is to live in the moment, to appreciate the present, and to make the little things count. They do say that what’s essential is the journey and not the destination, right? This is exactly the problem of our fast-paced world today, where everything is instant and people no longer have time to slow down and actually live. There’s also something about how the story weaves in and out of hallucinations and hospital glimpses of Cameron’s family crying that makes the reader wonder if any of this is really even happening, but here’s the catch, summarized in a simple conversation with Cameron:

"Did you live these past two weeks?"
"I live every week!" I argue.
"No. You exist. The question is, did you live?"
For a second, I stop fighting and think about what he's asking me. Did I live? I made a best friend. Lost another. Cried. Laughed. Lost my virginity. Gained a piece of magic, gave it away. Possibly changed a man's destiny. Drank beer. Slept in cheap motels. Got pissed off. Laughed some more. Escaped from the police and bounty hunters. Watched the sun set over the ocean. Had a soda with my sister. Saw my mom and dad as they are. Understood music. Had sex again, and it was pretty mind-blowing. Not that I'm keeping score. Okay, I'm keeping score. Played the bass. Went to a concert. Wandered around New Orleans. Freed the snow globes. Saved the universe.
Now that we’re just beginning a whole new year ahead of us this 2016, there’s no better lesson to learn than to know how to live a full life. It’s time to stop merely existing. It’s time to suck it all in, take the plunge, and go through all of life’s hardships in order to live the life we want. In the end, Cameron may have been getting closer to death with each passing second (due to a painful and incredibly weird disease he can’t even understand), but he certainly did not give up without a fight. What’s your excuse?

“’Maybe there's a universe where I don't get this disease at all. Where none of this happens.’ As soon as I say it, I think of Dulcie. Of Gonzo and Balder and this whole nutty trip, how I wouldn't trade parts of it for anything.”

*This post was first seen on The Philippine Online Chronicles HERE.

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