My selected book for this week was Libba Bray's Going Bovine. I accidentally posted my response to Lois Lowry's The Giver as the fantasy selected book, but after talking to Beth about this, I've decided to rewrite my response appropriately. So apologies to my blog partner (and to Beth), but here it is. I'll start off by saying that mad cow disease is not something we normally joke about, since we're less than ten years removed from the fatal outbreak of 2001, but somehow Bray manages to take a topic we normally take seriously and turn it into a hilariously warped tale of one boy's quest for a cure.
Cameron Smith, the sixteen-year-old stoner protagonist, is diagnosed early on in the book with Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, variant BSE--the incurable human form of mad cow. The book is a darkly humorous journey that may or may not take place entirely in Cameron's mind as his brain slowly succumbs to his illness, but regardless of whether or not the events are real, I thought it was funny.
While it certainly seems like the events of the story are the product of a fever dream--and many online reviews seem to agree with this--I'm not convinced. Bray never specifically says whether it's real or not, and let's face it--adolescent literature, particularly fantasy, is getting weirder every year. I'm not sure if that's just a ploy to keep young readers engaged or what, but it worked on me. I like the idea of being sent on a quest to find a cure for a supposedly incurable disease by a punk-rock angel, and have it written as if it were actually happening. That's what fantasy literature is--fantastical things are supposed to happen as if they were everyday occurrences. In my opinion, people who read this book and thought Cameron's adventures all happened in his head kind of missed the point. Whether or not a weird road trip happens in your head during the course of a fantasy book is totally irrelevant. The way I see it, Cameron's trip (and that word can be taken in more than one context) is more a search for his own personal meaning, rather than a mere hallucination. They say that perception is reality. If you can see, hear, touch, taste, or feel something, it's real...right? I certainly think so, and I think Bray does, too, which is why she never explicitly states that the things Cameron experiences and the people he meets are real or not. It's implied.
That said, Cameron himself is an interesting case study. One review I read said that he was cut from the same cloth as Holden Caulfield, the whiny and self-important protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye and, as I said way back at the beginning of the semester, one of my most hated literary characters of all time. I have to disagree with that statement wholeheartedly. While Caulfield (at least from what I remember) never takes the time given to him by J.D. Salinger to do a little self-reflection, Bray makes Cameron do just that for the whole length of the book. Cameron begins as a stereotypical teenager: a disaffected, disconnected, sarcastic, pot-smoking underachiever, complete with a popular sister and well-to-do parents. He's a lot like me as a teen (minus the pot, which came later, but that's a story for another time); our families are even similar. His personal motto is "no expectations, no disappointments" (even that sounds familiar). Like me, Cameron is not dumb; he just doesn't apply himself. The initial symptoms of his incurable brain disease are chalked up to his drug use and "bad attitude," but when he finds out that he is inevitably going to die of mad cow disease, he falls into a coma--and embarks on his whimsical quest to find a cure from the mysterious Dr. X. The people he encounters along the way--Dulcie the punk-rock angel, Gonzo the video game-obsessed dwarf, the undercover revolutionary Library Girl, even the Norse god Balder (who is trapped in the shape of a lawn gnome)--teach him a valuable lesson: that reality is what you make of it.
Some people found it troubling that Cameron could not make that connection in his "waking life," only in his dream state. I think that's the point: Bray took a character who treated life as if it were a chore, and made him realize that that one life is the only one you get, so it's important to appreciate it while you have it. It's sad that Cameron had to contract a fatal disease in order to recognize that fact, but in my opinion at least, it was necessary. Cameron was so apathetic that he needed to stare his own impending death in the face to realize how valuable life is.
Cameron isn't the only one who comes to a realization; Library Girl also makes an interesting observation about the nature of self-worth. She explains to Cameron that "a lot of the stories or words or even ideas contained in most books could be negative or hurtful or make you question your happiness or even question the concept of happiness as an ideal." She continues by telling him that Don Quixote, for example, may be enjoyable to some readers, but it frustrates others because they don't understand it right away, "so it had to go." I thought this was highly important to an understanding of the book's themes: just because you don't get something doesn't make you stupid or inadequate. You have to consciously tell yourself that you are good enough, even if you don't quite measure up to other people's standards. What are other people's standards worth, anyway? In Bray's eyes (and mine), the answer is "not much." Library Girl's removal of Don Quixote from the shelves in order to avoid inducing a "nonpositive experience" in readers is the embodiment of the idea that some people aren't good enough, so standards must be lowered. But she's missing the point: there shouldn't be any standards. Standards themselves create a sense of inadequacy, and they shouldn't be a measure of self-worth.