Isn’t that a sickening front cover?
Everything’s wrong with it.
Orange on grey? Oh, I really don’t think so. It’s a terrible title: dodgy author’s name, too. It has tag lines – what’s it trying to be, a film? And the cow-and-garden-gnome combination looks like something that should be on the cover of a distressingly specialized periodical.
I can’t tell you how much I was looking forward to hating this book from the very first page. I was salivating. The knives were sharpened. I was rehearsing ways of getting the Fawlty Towers line ‘insert a large garden gnome in you’ into this review somewhere.
But Going Bovine cheated me. I couldn’t begin to dislike it even slightly until I was one hundred odd pages from the end. Up to that point, I was having a ball.
Our narrator, Cameron, is a marvellously clichéd, moderately disaffected American teen. He can’t really relate to others, can’t get laid, his sister’s better at school and socialising than he is and his parents suck. He spends most of his time buying vinyl from (and avoiding meaningful conversations with) jazz freak Eubie. Otherwise, he can be found flipping burgers, or you can track him down by tracing the source of the reefer smoke. He can also occasionally be located in the company of gamers who like discussing the wilder conceptual problems thrown up by physics (Schrödinger’s cat, etc.).
To add insult to ennui Cameron starts having rather intense apocalyptic hallucinations which are diagnosed (after a few false starts: drug counselling, therapy, anti-psychotic meds) as symptoms of Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. That’s Mad Cow, to the rest of us, and he’s got a very short time to live.
But then Cameron sees an angel. Then he heads off on a quest to save the universe and find a cure: accompanied by a Latino dwarf and the Norse god Balder (Balder, by the way, is languishing in the incarnation of a garden gnome).
Now by my normal standards, I’d have hurled this book against a wall many revelations ago. What kept me going was the theme-park enthusiasm of it all.
Theme parks are not merely thematically important to this novel. They also define its appeal: we’re not going to be hurt, here. All is safe. It’s a wacky world, to be sure, but one in which survival is guaranteed.
Going Bovine is fairy-floss. It’s refined sugar – the buzz you get from it will fade pretty quickly. But it’s enormous amounts of fun while it lasts.
If only the energy lasted to the very end…
Going Bovine takes off like a stabbed rat where plot and characterisation are concerned. A stabbed rat, however, can only dash so far before blood-loss slows it down. This particular rat manages to dash on for about four hundred pages. Four hundred very enjoyable pages.
After that point, however, the rat is barely crawling, and it’s only a matter of time before it expires.
Unfortunately, the novel slumps into sentimentality. Bray does have to tie it all off: but it seems (frankly) like cowardice to knot it so neatly given the chaos that brings the novel into life. Going Bovine would have been an absolute hoot without its feel-good ending. And I would have been a much more satisfied reader.
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that Bray is the new Douglas Adams. Adams didn’t use mad physics as plot devices: he presented mad physics to us (unintelligible as it commonly is) in intelligible contexts. This is an important point.
Adams delighted in demystifying. Bray doesn’t even see that as a minor priority: you get the sense that an awful lot of googling went into this book, but not an awful lot of understanding.
If it wasn’t for Bray’s sentimentality about death and other dark issues, this novel could have been a minor little diamond from the first to the very last page.
Going Bovine is, instead, a somewhat tarnished garnet.
But you can insert a large garden gnome in me if you find it’s not worth reading.