I really wasn’t sure what to make of Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, which I picked up to read for the Forever Young Adult Book Club. The novel is a coming-of-age story which takes place during the apocalyptic breakout of a plague that turns people into giant grasshoppers.
In the small town of Ealing, Iowa, Austin and his best friend, Robby, have accidentally unleashed an unstoppable army. An army of horny, hungry, six-foot-tall praying mantises that only want to do two things.
This is the truth. This is history.
It’s the end of the world. And nobody knows anything about it.
You know what I mean.
Funny, intense, complex, and brave, Grasshopper Jungle brilliantly weaves together everything from testicle-dissolving genetically modified corn to the struggles of recession-era, small-town America in this groundbreaking coming-of-age stunner.
From the publisher, Penguin Canada
The book is strange, and I’m not sure if it works or not. I definitely commend it for the frank way it deals with sexuality and being a teen in the 21st century. If you put aside the weird six-foot-tall horny praying mantises, the narrative is both strong and strange.
Sixteen-year-old Austin lives in Ealing, Iowa, a near ghost town after the closing of the local plant. Austin is in love with his two best friends, at the same time, and its driving him spare. He has been dating Shann Collins since they were in seventh grade, the same time his best friend Robby came out as gay. Austin spends most of his day—when he’s not in school—either hanging out with Robby and/or Shann, fantasizing about sex, and doing other regular teenage things like masturbating and working a part-time job.
Written in a stream-of-consciousness diary, the narrative is full of sexual thoughts, angst, more thinking about sex, worry, sexual confusion, musings on family and ancestry, and more. Austin’s journal includes a lot of contemplation, some cursing, occasional substance abuse (smoking and a bit of alcohol), and general teenage confusion. I found the frank descriptions of sexual desire and the teenage boy’s brain both refreshing and startling. Part of the blunt voice was Austin trying to be a historian, and relate the events of the past without commentary. Although that rarely actually happens. What actually bothered me was not the content but the style: Austin is really repetitive. The number of times he reiterates family history, fantasizes about a threeway with his girlfriend and gay best friend, or his Patron Saint started to really get on my nerves.
I’m still not sure if I liked this book or not. The timeline and plot challenged traditional narrative, and the past and present were pieced together in Austin’s blunt narrative style. Yet the frank honesty of Austin’s voice, and his best friend Robby, was refreshing despite the overly crass inner monologue that sometimes prevailed. It seemed only Austin was fully developed, and to some degree Robby. But Shann felt entirely underdeveloped, as did all the (mostly absent) adults in the novel. The sci-fi elements could have been weird and half-baked, but instead Andrew Smith just took them and ran with it. I actually think I liked that the sci-fi elements were explained but not over analyzed or even completely resolved.
I’m still undecided about how I feel about this book. At its heart, Grasshopper Jungle is about teenagers coming of age in a very weird world. The sci-fi elements of a praying mantis plague using human hosts and then eating and copulating are really just a backdrop to this Bildungsroman.