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Friday, February 21, 2014

'Grasshopper Jungle' by Andrew Smith

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Sixteen-year-old Austin Szerba interweaves the story of his Polish legacy with the storyof how he and his best friend , Robby, brought about the end of humanity and the rise of an army of unstoppable, six-foot tall praying mantises in small-town Iowa.

To make matters worse, Austin's hormones are totally oblivious; they don't care that the world is in utter chaos: Austin is in love with his girlfriend, Shann, but remains confused about his sexual orientation. He's stewing in a self-professed constant state of maximum horniness, directed at both Robby and Shann. Ultimately, it's up to Austin to save the world and propagate the species in this sci-fright journey of survival, sex, and the complex realities of the human condition.

Austin Szerba read somewhere that “human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.” So that’s what he’s doing – recording everything that happened leading up to the night he and his best friend, Robby, broke into the From Attic to Seller thrift store and witnessed a few Hoover Boys unwittingly release a plague strain that could destroy the world as we know it. 

Austin is not lying when he promises that within the pages of ‘Grasshopper Jungle’ there are; “babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.”

But it’s also a book about a third-generation Polish-American boy who’s in love with his girlfriend, while being confused about his feelings for his gay best friend. It’s about his mother who kayaks with little blue Xanax pills and what it’s like to grow up in the small town of Ealing, Iowa. Oh, and it’s about the “Unstoppable Soldier” and 6-foot-tall man-eating praying mantises. 

It’s a history of the end of the world, and a history of this boy’s life so far.

‘Grasshopper Jungle’ is the new contemporary/dystopian/sci-fi/coming-of-age … Kafka-esque young adult novel from Andrew Smith.

In a recent interview with Kirkus, Smith summarized his new book thus; “I think it was my singular intent to write a book that nobody could ever write jacket or flap copy for.” Well, he’s certainly succeeded there. 

I find it really hard to talk about this book without first name-checking the authors Andrew Smith reminds me of. With ‘Grasshopper Jungle’ in particular, Smith has echoes of Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Coupland even Bret Eastn Ellis and you can’t deny the Kafka ‘Metamorphosis’ connection for explorations into homosexuality alongside larger-than-life insects. But I don’t want to imply that ‘Grasshopper Jungle’ reads like a poor imitation of any of those authors – especially when it’s only in certain moments that I got a whiff of them. Like Bret Easton Ellis, Smith has perfectly captured a generational voice for his unsettling examinations of our society’s ugly-glam; 

My mother took an antianxiety drug called Xanax. It was a little blue pill that looked like a tiny kayak. Robbie’s mother took it, too. Our moms were like Xanax sisters, except they didn’t know much more about each other than first names, who their baby boys’ best friends were, and Ealing gossip. 
Kayak and Xanax are palindromes. 
Robby’s mother was named Connie, too. 
It was always fascinating to me how perfect things could be if you just let all the connections happen. My history showed how everything connected in Ealing, Iowa.

Look, ‘Grasshopper Jungle’ won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. There were times when I struggled with it – reading Austin’s incredibly detailed, often waffling but always fascinating first-person interiority alongside this larger-than-life story about larger-than-life man-eating praying mantises … ‘kooky’ doesn’t even begin to describe this book. But I did enjoy it, for the sum of its parts.

I liked that, alongside a rather dystopian ‘end of the world’ storyline, Smith has also written about Austin’s tender-confused feelings for his openly gay best friend. 

Shannon kissed me on the lips at the door of her new old house. 
She kissed Robby on the lips, too. 
Shann always kissed Robby on the mouth after she kissed me. 
It made me horny. 
I wondered what she would say if I asked her to have a threesome with us in her new old, unfurnished bedroom. 
I knew what Robby would say. 
Duh. 
I wondered if it made me homosexual to even think about having a threesome with Robby and Shann. And I hated knowing that it would be easier for me to ask Robby to do it than to ask my own girlfriend.

I liked that Smith so thoroughly, disarmingly, captured the voice of a horny teenage boy while also writing him with infinite nuance in his conflicted feelings. I also really enjoyed his musings about the small town of Ealing, Iowa that anyone who comes from concrete-suburban-small will recognise and smile/shiver over the setting and descriptions of community.

For better or worse, I also got a kick out of the “Unstoppable Soldier” storyline that skyrockets this novel into the stratosphere of WTF? weird. There’s poignancy in that sci-fi tale playing out alongside Austin’s small-town musings; particularly about his older brother who had his leg blown off while fighting in Afghanistan and the casual violence of the local Hoover Boys who call Austin and Robby “faggots” for doing nothing more than hanging out together. 

The storyline is all over the place though, literally. In his recounting of history, Austin goes up, down and sideways – making ‘Grasshopper Jungle’ read more like a history essay that’s written with last-ten-minutes-to-go panic where Austin continually says “oh, yeah, and *this* happened before *that* but to understand you have to go all the way back to *then*…” It’s endearing and authentic, but I occasionally got frustrated. Particularly when Austin also thinks to include things like the bowel movements of his golden retriever in the recounting. 

I tip my hat to Andrew Smith. ‘Grasshopper Jungle’ is an ambitious, out-there mind-tripping young adult novel. It has traces of some wonderful authors, but Andrew Smith is clearly in a league all his own with this one. For some people it will be a revelatory YA-read. For others, it might read like a convoluted genre-mashing mess. For me, Austin’s voice carried the story – in all its tender, banal glory – and I was more than willing to stick with him through confusing sexual feelings and man-eating praying mantises. 

4/5 

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