Going Bovine by Libba Bray

Going Bovine is the story of sixteen year old Cameron Smith who, after experiencing hallucinations and strange instances of losing control of his limbs, gets diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob. Specifically, the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy variant. Otherwise known as Mad Cow Disease – a fatal virus that eats holes in your brain, turning it into sponge. Right off the bat, we know we have an unreliable narrator due to the fact his brain is quite literally turning to mush. So, when an angel decked out in punk attire gives him a quest to save the universe and find a cure for his disease from a time-travelling, dimension-hopping scientist named Dr. X, you are already thinking, “Okay, this is all in his head.” But the fantastical-ness of it draws you in, as does Cam’s growing love of life as he makes the most memorable friends along the way. You find yourself asking: Is Cameron actually just laying in a bed at St. Jude’s dying – his brain concocting this elaborate quest by piecing together people, places, events, and random snippets of information he picked up in the weeks before being admitted to the hospital? Or is everything truly connected and time truly elastic with multiple universes overlapping to the point where Cameron is actually jumping between them? One universe in which he is immobile in a hospital bed and the other in which he is saving the world, both existing at the same time?

“What if there are parallel universes where you’re you only different … all those other roads, those other choices you don’t make? They must go to live somewhere.”

Cam may be a bratty teenager at the beginning, but weren’t we all? I found myself loving him more and more with every page I read, and my hope that he would truly make it through everything and get to live out his life grew too. The bits of Quantum Physics Philosophy that are thrown in really got me thinking too. What if both the scenarios I listed above where true? Maybe he was simultaneously dying and having these amazing adventures.

Maybe I connected with the story so strongly and asked these questions because I was reminded of my best friend who passed away in February 2020. I remember sitting by her bedside during the last week she was with us. She was constantly asleep, but she was muttering things I couldn’t quite catch under her breath and her hands were moving around purposefully. I knew something was going on in her head, and I wondered what it was. Perhaps our brains cook something up to distract us from the fear and/or pain our bodies are experiencing in those final moments. Or perhaps, when our bodies are giving out on us, the core of what we are is able to drift to other planes of existence and visit parallel worlds! This book made me wonder more about my friend’s last moments and even what my last moments might be like.

“We are infinity”

If the atoms that make us up are the same atoms that make up the entire universe, maybe we all contain within ourselves every possible universe. Maybe, when these bodies die, the atoms that make us up return back to blend back into that universal cauldron of possibilities. Maybe some people already know how to tap into that vast pool of knowledge. Astral projection? Mediums? Heck, maybe even writers get a peek and every story ever made is an account of something that really happened in another universe! Is it extremely likely? Probably not. But the possibility ain’t zero. And it’s fun to think about regardless! That is what this book was to me. Turning something scary into a heartwarming adventure into what life is truly all about: The Here and Now! We were given this universe, this planet, this body to live in for whatever amount of time we get when we roll the dice. We learn along with Cam that, instead of fretting over what is to come, we should appreciate the Now we have been blessed with. If I could sum up the overall meaning and affect this book gives with a quote from its pages, it would be these words spoken by a talking garden gnome who just might be the Viking god Balder:

“You see only the coming doom and lose faith in what is here, what is good.”

Quotes worth mentioning:

  • We know. These are hard times. The world hurts. We live in fear and forget to walk with hope. But hope has not forgotten you. So ask it to dinner. It’s probably hungry and would appreciate the invitation
  • How do people stay in love anyway? Is it a choice? Or is it like those plants we studied in biology that mutate into something new and totally different but are still part of the same plant family?
  • Her kiss is like something not so much felt as found.
  • I feel like I swallowed a Magritte. Like on the inside, I’m made of clouds and floating eyes, green apples, and slowly rising men in bowler hats.
  • Only one thing comes out of a black hole, and that, my friend, is sound. Music. As things get pulled right on in to it that black hole sings.

**SPOILERS: Do not read further unless you are okay with knowing how it ends before reading or don’t want to read it but still want to know how it ends**

So the big question was Is Cameron going to find Dr. X, get his miracle cure, and jolt back to life, or is he going to succumb to the disease?

Cameron does find Dr. X who turns out to be a grade-A jerk. Then, the villain who had been chasing Cameron and his buddies the whole journey, The Wizard of Reckoning, shows up to tell him he is still dying at St. Jude’s and this was all in his head. Cameron goes on one last sprint away from The Wizard down a hallway with many doors and sees many different versions of how life turns out for his friends and family (further hints of parallel worlds). After escaping from The Wizard, Cameron accepts the weariness blanketing him and is back in the hospital. His life support being turned off. He knows it is time, and he is peaceful. He sees his family surrounding him before feeling himself being pulled out into darkness and sees planets and stars and universes. It’s a very beautiful, calming scene, meant to soothe those fears about death and what comes after. And what waits for Cameron on the other side is his punk angel girlfriend (yes they ended up together and you knew they would). Does that leave you wondering what about his journey was real and what was all in his head? Well, our head is the only place we truly are 24/7. We live every day in our heads. The message is clear: Reality is what you make it. So live it up!

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