Going Bovine is a deeply satirical, often dark, surreal quest story. It’s not the kind of story for everyone. It’s long! The plot is complicated and twists in and out of believability. It’s off-color and even vulgar. But Bray takes on huge social concepts and turns them all into comedic barbs. The story is quite a trip, and that’s the point.
The main character sells it as a believable teenager. He coasts through school and work, likes pretty girls, hates his father for having an affair, despises his emotionally distant mother, fights with his sister, gets high in the bathroom at school, and generally doesn’t give a fuck. His voice is alternately sarcastic and apathetic or positively ecstatic. When something does make him light up, make him care, he’s whole-heartedly passionate.
Music does it: “The song makes me want to run and shout, kiss girls and ride motorcycles through the desert. It makes me feel really alive, the way Eubie says music should.”
Dulcie does it: “Something brushes against my bare skin. Fingers? Lips? Wings? I can’t say, but the sensation is incredible. . . . It’s so intense, this happiness – there is no escape velocity from this kind of feeling. And for once, I’m not looking for a way out.”
As far as style goes, I’m jealous of Bray’s ability to blend dreams/fantasy and reality. She sends Cam from waking to dreaming and back flawlessly in this selection:
"I’ve put my head on my desk, where I can hear the minute hand ticking hard in my ear. My eye-lids are heavy. Almost . . . Asleep . . .
The room is on fire. A row of flames shoots up in to my field of vision. I leap out of my chair, knocking it over. It hits the ground with a loud thwack.
'Mr. Smith? Are you okay?' Mrs. Rector asks.
When I look up to the front of the room, everything’s fine. No fire."
Transitions from Cam’s journey to the hospital room are also fluid but clear. The reader knows exactly where reality is interrupting the imaginary journey.
“The fire god pries open my mouth and covers it with his. He breathes out, filling my lungs with choking smoke. My body shakes. Somebody’s pushing against my chest in a hard rhythm.
‘Page Dr. Xavier!’ Glory shouts. I’m on a gurney, watching the fluorescent ceiling lights strobe over me fast . . . .
The next think I know, I’m on the pavement of Farm Route 44 with a van headed right for me.”
Setting is where Bray’s wit shines, starting with the SPEW test (State Prescribed Educational Worthiness) where thinking outside the pre-prescribed test material is strictly prohibited, and continuing on to a giant mockery of MTV’s spring break television shows. She purposely compares the setting of this story to the setting of Don Quixote. The famous literary novel is introduced by Cam’s cheating; he says, “The Fake It! Notes tell me that Cervantes is satirizing the culture of idealism.” He goes on to compare suburban housing to Don Quixote’s windmills. And the reader automatically continues to make similar comparisons throughout the book.
Themes in Going Bovine include mental instability, dysfunctional families, news and television, education, environmental concerns, religion, instant gratification, family, friendship, love, lust, fear, and death. Dulcie shares this ultimate theme with Cameron, “Everyone’s dying. A little, every day. Make it count.”
The theme is lofty, literary, and admirable, but I do take issue with the suggestion that what Cam did on his journey was really the core of living. Unless Bray believes the sum of these activities to be much greater than their parts, I don’t get it. Cam “lives” by partying, drinking, smoking weed, stealing money, avoiding religious crazies, having unprotected sex with a school crush and doing it again with an angel an hour later, running away from a dark evil force, getting put on a wanted list, and grappling with the intertwined concepts of music, physics, and trans-dimension time-travel. His version of “making it count” is only "making it fun." I was rooting for Cam to care about anything other than survival and self-gratification. I have a hard time accepting that anyone can make his life count- even an imagined life- without ambition and gratitude.