Crossing the country in search of a cure
Libba Bray's picaresque novel takes a new direction
Winner of the 2010 Printz Award
Libba Bray’s secret underground lair, from which one day she plans to rule the universe, is, interestingly enough an exact replica of her living room in Brooklyn. Although the fact that it contains the world’s most uncomfortable couch may be her downfall. As she told BookPage while sitting on that couch, “It’s hard to be an Evil Author Overlord™ with an aching back.”
Fans of Bray’s best-selling Gemma Doyle trilogy (beginning with A Great and Terrible Beauty) who have sought out her stories in anthologies such as The Restless Dead and 21 Proms will be familiar with her manner of pulling humor out of the darkest corners of life. Now in her tremendously original and compulsively readable picaresque Going Bovine, Bray goes all-out to explore her inner weird and has produced a provocative road novel for the 21st century.
Readers of the Gemma Doyle books may wonder if this is the same author. Bray says it should actually be the other way around: when she wrote the Gemma Doyle books her “close friends were thrown for a loop. They expected a Going Bovine-type book, not gothic historical fantasy.”
Going Bovine was sparked by a story Bray’s mother told her. “A man in our hometown had been diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease, the human variant of mad cow disease. During his deterioration, he suffered from horrifying hallucinations, including one in which he would see flames shooting up into his field of vision.” Bray was fascinated by the idea of not being able to trust your reality.
That idea of not knowing what’s real and what’s not eventually grew into Going Bovine, in which 16-year-old Cameron discovers he has mad cow disease and is horrified to find it is a death sentence. Cameron’s vision quest across the country in search of a cure begins when he realizes how much of his life he has missed by just letting it pass by. This “temptation to drift off into solipsism” was what Bray wanted to investigate in Going Bovine.
Bray had no trouble getting into Cameron’s teenage male headspace. Growing up, she had a backstage pass into the Y-chromosome experience—many of her close friends were male and she was spared nothing by her brother, Stuart. She proudly declares that many of her female friends have pointed out she is a teen boy at heart. Further proving her point, Bray says, “I realized while writing this that the characters I identified with most as a teen/young adult were all male—Holden Caulfield, Jimmy from Quadrophenia, Harold in Harold & Maude. All the poster boys for the vulnerable, disillusioned and sex-and-death obsessed.”
Even though Bray immersed herself in pop culture as she wrote the book—her list of influences includes The Flaming Lips, Ray LaMontagne, The Shins, Gnarls Barkley, Sufjan Stevens, Thomas Pynchon, George Saunders, Julian Barbour, Kurt Vonnegut, Don Quixote, Ovid, Norse mythology, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz and even “the way midnight movies make you feel when you are 17”—she uses imaginary names for the bands and brands her characters talk about so that the book wouldn’t be dated. These imaginary people and products, such as Rad Soda, notch up the absurdity and surrealism quotient and allow Bray to slide in a little commentary on rampant consumerism, reality TV and branding. “And,” she noted, “it’s really fun to make stuff up.”
But the real question is, does she still eat hamburgers? “Occasionally. But now I hear a ticking time bomb of death with every bite. Honestly, if you want to scoot toward vegetarianism, just research mad cow disease.”
For the next little while she’ll be concentrating on Tiger Beat, a band comprised of YA authors—Natalie Standiford on bass, Daniel Ehrenhaft on guitar, Barney Miller on drums and vocals and Bray on vocals and drums (her tambourine skills are really improving). They have a gig with Frank Portman and the Mr. T Experience at Sidewalk Café in New York City on September 20 and are hoping to do more later in the fall.
As for future writing projects, Bray says, “I just want to write what I want to write when I wants to write it.” Her work-in-progress is once again very different from her previous work (although it too sounds like a un-put-down-able read). She describes it as “a satire about a group of teen beauty queens whose plane crashes on a deserted island. Sort of Lord of the Flies as channeled by P.J. O’Rourke and [National Lampoom writer] Doug Kenney.”
Gavin J. Grant is the publisher of Small Beer Press. He does not eat hamburgers.
Read a review of Going Bovine.
Read an exerpt of Going Bovine on the book's website.
Watch Tiger Beat perform Janis Joplin's "Down on Me."
And don't miss the hilarious trailer for the book.