Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith - Review

Saint Kazimirez shows up a lot.
Trust me, you’ll want to have read this book. Get hyped. It’s winning awards and taking names. Sony is all over the movie rights. And deservedly so.

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith1 is an incredible book. What’s it about?2
Short version: Teen deals with being bi while giant praying mantises attack.
Long Version: Austin Szerba is in love with his girlfriend and his best friend, and narrates his struggle as it intermingles with the lives of the people of3
Ealing, Iowa, as a plague of giant praying mantises emerge from the townsfolk. Along the way, he explores the nature of art, history, truth, and sexuality.

Grasshopper Jungle shouldn’t be thought of as a book though. Think of it as a very, very long symphony. It uses repeating phrases like musical motifs, creating a musical flow to frame the increasingly complex story.
  • It was not a good idea.
  • No one knew anything about it.  
  • And that was our day.
  • A real dynamo.
  • Bugs only like to do two things.
  • You know what I mean.
  • “Um.”

But there are more complicated ideas that repeat as well. For instance, Austin’s mother takes a lot of Xanax, which look like “little blue Kayaks.” The payoff? A chapter later we get the following:
I’d never seen my mother run one time in my life. Who wants to run when you can kayak everywhere?
Austin will continue to speak of drugs as Kayaks for the remainder of the novel. Simmiliarly, he regards his writing as “Recording history” and parallels himself to the cave painters of Lascaux and Altmaria, saying that neither tells the whole story, but merely shows the important parts, and lets you work the rest out.
We killed a big hairy thing. And that was our day. You know what I mean.
It’s a beautiful device, as it allows the narrator to be 1st Person Omnicient, a rare perspective and a bit challenging, especially for YA. It’s full of all these big grand ideas explored through how they relate to the protagonist, how precisely Austin is juxtaposed against the Vice President’s testicles. This perspective is a tad self-centered, but it fits the protagonist perfectly. Sometimes teenagers are self-centered, especially when they’re trying to figure themselves out.

Grasshopper Jungle gets being a teenager. For a while a problem I had with the book was that it was overly focused on the love triangle as Austin struggles to choose between Robby and Shann. The protagonists didn’t realize there was a plague of praying mantises attacking until 3/5ths of the way through the narrative because they were too wrapped up in their worries about love and sex.5

No quote.  Just enjoy the gif.  It's adorable. 
Then I realized, that’s a flawless metaphor for teenagehood.

Now, I know not all teens categorize things into “makes me horny” and “does not make me horny” 6 but it has a ring of truth to it. Whenever the narrator responds to a stimulus with “[this thing] made me horny” or “I was thinking about having a threesome with my best friends in [this new, probably dangerous place]” I was nodding along going “Yep. Been there, done that.” It’s a realistic portrayal of a teenage mindset.

The characters are realistic teens too. Robby Brees, acquiring a nosebleed from being punched in the face by bullies, tries to write “Grant Wallace Murdered Me” in his own blood. Spiteful, but believable. And hilarious.7  Meanwhile, Shann spends most of her time investigating the mysterious past of her house and how it connects to the mysterious things in her stepfather’s office.8

The narrator’s struggle to work out what he is and how to define himself is heartfelt, and does a good job of mirroring the sort of struggles I feel like a lot of queer teens go through. Austin more or less knows that he’s in love with a guy and a girl for the whole novel, but his coming to terms with it takes him a long, long time, and the word “Bisexual” is conspicuously absent from the narrative right up until right before the climactic battles with the giant praying mantises. He points out how hard it is to work it out, again bringing back the Altmaria paintings:
We made this stupid rule and this stupid rule.

Boys are not allowed to love each other.

Then we painted bison on the wall.
I will say this, towards the end of the novel the increasingly wide scope slows down what could have been a tighter, more action-packed narrative. But it’s a minor complaint about an otherwise stellar novel. I could rave for ages about it, but instead of that, why not go pick up a copy and save us both time?

"Bad Buisness Plan," Robby said.
"Fixing people's feet in a town everyone's 
desperate to run away from."