Sunday, October 18, 2015

Holy Cow - bovine tales

book review

David Duchovny's novel is an absurd but amusing animal adventure with a cow as its protagonist
Book: Holy Cow
Author: David Duchovny

Many celebrities find it imperative to put pen to paper and flaunt their (often questionable) literary skills by writing a book. Some publish their autobiographies and memoirs, detailing their many escapades; others try their hand at fiction, spinning tales for readers of all ages.

So it isn’t exactly shocking that David Duchovny has written a book. The actor, best known for starring in The X-Files and Californication, seems like a fairly interesting and creative person, and he does, after all, have a master’s degree in English literature, so it makes perfect sense that he would want to pen a tome. 

It is, however, a little surprising that his debut novel is about an anthropomorphic cow. 

Holy Cow tells the story of Elsie Bovary, a young bovine living an idyllic life on a small farm in upstate New York. She spends her days grazing, getting milked, sleeping, and gossiping with her best friend Mallory. Her existence is largely pleasant and peaceful, even though she still misses her mother who suddenly disappeared one day “like all cow moms do”.

But her world is turned upside down one night with the occurrence of what she refers to as “The Event”. Venturing out of the pasture, Elsie heads towards the farmhouse, and looks in through the window. A family is quietly staring at a lighted box, but the images on the screen shock her to the core. The Box God reveals how animals are treated on industrial meat farms, and as she watches cows being slaughtered, she finally realises what happened to her mom and what fate has in store for her. 

Horrified, and not keen on being turned into leather and beef, she hatches a plot to escape to India where cows are sacred, and therefore, she will be safe. She reluctantly teams up with two companions for the journey — a Jewish pig named Shalom who wants to go to Israel because the kosher dietary restrictions ensure his safety in the region, and an iPhone-toting turkey named Tom who wants to go to Turkey thinking he won’t be eaten in a country named after his kind.

Together, they set off on a zany adventure that is preposterously nonsensical and, at times, downright bizarre. To get your head around this oddball tale, it helps to peruse the acknowledgments at the very end of the book, where the author reveals that Disney and Pixar turned the story down as an animated film, forcing him to “write it out like a big boy”. Its origins as an animated film outline goes a long way to explain the project as well as its style and tone, seeing how some of it is written “in screenplay form” and the protagonist even occasionally leaves notes for the director.

Also revelatory is the accompanying “note from the cow-writer”, in which Duchovny explains that he is fully aware that the premise is all kinds of — as Elsie would say — “cray cray”. Holy Cow isn’t trying to be even mildly realistic, and the author concedes that his heroine is “given to embellishment like any good storyteller, perhaps to outright lies like any great storyteller”.

But a good or great storyteller Elsie is not. Her fondness for cutesy lingo and habit of copiously employing (often cringe-worthy) puns may be amusing initially, but soon get repetitive, and feel downright tiring by the end.

The story itself is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Whether it’s discussing the treatment of animals or weighing in on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the book delivers its social observations and animal rights commentary in a manner that feels a little too heavy handed. That, however, doesn’t take away from the fact that Duchovny is clearly coming from a good place. The effort is obviously well intentioned, and the points he is trying to make are noble. It’s just that the execution, while imaginative, is a bit drawn out, and the prose can, at times, even be grating. You definitely need a high tolerance for the repeated use of “OMG” as well as terms like “amazeballs”, “sistas”, and “wha?” to enjoy this tale.

Also, it’s a tad confusing whom Holy Cow’s target audience is. While the book itself suggests that it will appeal to readers of all ages, and implicitly compares itself to the far superior Animal Farm and Charlotte’s Web, it is questionable whether the novel is suitable for children; both its content and language don’t seem very appropriate for young readers, and kids are likely to miss many of the pop-cultural references (like some of the chapter names which are derived from song titles) and political undertones that pervade the text. And while you can look at it as a children’s fable for grown-ups, the effort is too banal to classify as essential reading for adults.

Ultimately, Holy Cow is an eccentric yarn that proves that its writer has a crazy imagination. Accompanied inter­mittently by quirky illustrations (which are admittedly more like wry sketches), this whimsical animal adventure offers some good messages about kindness and peace, and while some readers may be less than impressed with the quality of its prose, others are likely to find the characters endearing and this outlandish fairy tale enjoyably amusing. 

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 18th October, 2015 *

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