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May 01

Book Review: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

What’s It About

History.  Sex.  And 6 foot tall praying mantises attacking a small town in Iowa.  So, you know, the usual fare.

Should I Read It?

Yes – but I recommend that you read a sample first.

In an attempt to reflect the thought processes of a sexually confused 16 year old boy, the novel bludgeons you with a number of repetitive phrases – “history will show…”, “… made me horny” – a fascination with bodily fluids, most (though not all), relating to sex and the word “balls”.  As Indrapramit Das astutely points out in his review for Strange Horizons, “the novel is so preoccupied with balls and their sanctity that no fewer than three characters name their gonads”

But it you can get past the many stylistic tics, there’s actually a lot to like about Grasshopper Jungle.  In a publishing world that’s swimming in Young Adult books dealing with dystopian futures and zombie apocalypses, it’s refreshing to read an end of the world novel that takes its inspiration from 1950s B-movies while also exploring issues of sexual identity and historical truth.  Because behind all the horniness, 6 foot praying mantises and very important people naming their scrotums, this is a book that is as much about a teenage boy coming to terms with his family’s past as it is about him coming to terms with his sexuality.

Representative Paragraph

I couldn’t help myself…

At that moment, the vice president of the United States of America was performing his monthly testicular self-exam. His balls felt perfectly fine. The vice president of the United States of America named his balls Theodore and Franklin. Theodore was a little bigger than Franklin.

And this one, which is bizarre both in context and out of it…

In 1978, Pope Paul VI died without ever knowing that Dr. Grady McKeon had unceremoniously discarded his sperm in my great-great-grandfather’s urinal.

Commentary:

A few reviews ago I was noting the sudden and frankly disturbing proliferation of novels featuring mutated tapeworms.  I remarked that if I never read another monster tapeworm novel again it would be too soon.  But 6 foot praying mantises who spend their days ripping people apart and fucking anything that moves – yeah, that’s a sub-genre I can back!

And where do these mantises come from?  Well, six people – a Vietnam vet, a married couple and the town bullies – are infected with a virus that transforms them into praying mantises.  The scene where 16-year-old Austin and his best mate Robby watch as Hungry Jack (the veteran) transforms into an overgrown grasshopper is delightfully revolting:

He was coming apart like a soft-boiled egg oozing thick, yolky blood.  Hungry Jack split entirely in half, the same way you’d cleave the husk of a roasted peanut, all the way from his skull to the fork of his crotch. Then he began turning inside out.  It wasn’t that Hungry Jack was actually turning, but something was coming out of the peanut shell of the old man’s body. The thing flopped and crawled stiffly, like a newborn calf, all slick and covered with blood and slippery goo. “Holy shit,” we both said, over and over.

These moments of gore aside, Smith employs his mantises sparingly for the first half of the novel.  The focus is instead on Austin’s feelings toward his close mate Robby, who happens to be gay, and Austin’s girlfriend Shann.  Mirroring the newly born mantises, all Austin can think about is sex, sex and more sex.  What confuses him is that he equally wants to be with Robby as he does with Shann, and it’s this struggle to come terms with his sexual identity that, more than the hungry and horny mantises, provides the novel with its dramatic tension.

History also plays a key role in how Austin tells his story.  As one of the last survivors of a doomed planet overrun by 6 foot praying mantises, Austin feels an obligation to explain how this all came about.  In a sense he sees himself as humanities last historian, and so rather than just focus on the last days of Ealing, Austin finds himself projecting further back into the history of his family.  At first, though, these flashbacks – prefaced by the increasingly annoying, “history will show… ” (a possible homage to Vonnegut’s “ so it goes”) – provide the novel with a source of observational comedy.

History shows that erections happen at the worst possible times, and they stick around until someone else notices them. Often, it is either a librarian or an English teacher, like Mrs. Edith Mitchell.

But as the story progresses and Austin’s confusion grows as he questions his love for both Shann and Robby, the flashbacks start to dig deeper into his own personal history.  We learn about how his family traveled from Poland to the US, how his great-great-grandfather manufactured urinals and, most importantly, how his great grandfather, Andrzej Szczerba, fell in love with another man.  These scenes are some of the most powerful in the book:

Andrzej had never kissed any person other than his mother, Eva Nightingale, and his father, Krzys Szczerba, in his entire life. Young Andrzej enjoyed kissing Herman Weinbach very much. Herman Weinbach was experienced, and Andrzej felt tremendous pleasure and satisfaction in sharing the sex the two of them enjoyed together.  Nobody knew anything about Andrzej and Herman. They fell as deeply in love with each other as anyone in the entire history of mankind. That is the truth. Andrzej loved Herman, but he told him he would never become a Communist. Herman Weinbach laughed about that.

While Andrzej’s relationship with Herman doesn’t end well, these glimpses into his grandfather’s past allows Austin, to some degree, to deal with his own sexual identity.

Throughout all these observations, recollections and revelations, Austin questions the knee-jerk compulsion to believe in “established” history.  Austin is aware that what we’re taught at school will always be a sanitized and censored version of what actually happened.  As he notes, “history never tells us about people taking shits.”  But more profoundly, Austin acknowledges that it’s our reliance on our past that might actually be holding us back:

I began to consider the fact that maybe history is actually the great destroyer of free will.  After all, if what we blindly believe about history is true – the old cliche admonishing us to learn how not to repeat the same shit over and over again – then why do the same shitty things keep happening and happening and happening?

While I appreciated these insights, the novel does have its issues.  Smith falls back on a number of irritating clichés such as the town’s overbearing and conservative priest also happening to be gay, and a personal bugbear of mine – a woman falling pregnant the first time she has sex.  (Yes, I know it happens in the real world, but I detest how it’s used as a plot device).  Austin also regularly objectifies the women around him, especially Shann.  While this can possibly be excused by his teenage hormones, as Indrapramit Das remarks, Austin’s relationship with women is more problematic than just noting the size of their breasts:

The unfolding of an apocalyptic scenario frees the boys from the social mores that keep them powerless (in relation to adult men), so that they can explore the world and protect women and play with healthy offspring while said women huddle underground “quietly pouting,” worrying about their adventurous male companions and feelings and showering schedules (I kid you not).

Still, I was willing to forgive the book these issues – including the stylistic tics I’ve mentioned above – because it’s not everyday you read a novel about 6 foot tall rapacious praying mantises that also explores issues of sexual identity and provides mature insights into our relationship with truth and established history.

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