Saturday, June 18, 2016

Review of Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

It’s my assumption that, readers who love Kurt Vonnegut do so for the biting wit and dark perspective/humor. One of literature’s great satirists, he used an idiosyncratic style—a flat, no frills voice—to emphasize the dramatic, fatalistic kinks of humanity in action. Quite apparently an admirer of Vonnegut, Andrew Smith penned Grasshopper Jungle in 2015 in very similar style.

Ostensibly YA though scalable to adults, Grasshopper Jungle tells of the adventures, and growing up that results, of Austin Szerba and his best friends Robbie and Shann over one summer in Ealing, Iowa. Typical teenagers, they smoke when their parents aren’t around, deal with hormones racing through their bodies, explore hobbies, attempt to comprehend emotions, and ultimately try to survive the giant praying mantis apocalypse. Yes, the giant praying mantis apocalypse…

The apocalypse beginning innocently enough, Austin and Robbie are beaten up at the local shopping mall one day by a group of boys from a rival high school. Their shoes and skateboards thrown onto the roof of a shop during the fight, the pair return in the evening to collect the lost property. Finding a lot more on the roof then they ever imagined, the two, along with Austin’s would-be girlfriend Shann, are pushed to explore the secret history of Ealing, particularly one of its founding father’s grand plans to create super soldiers during WWII. A virus unwittingly unleashed on the citizens of Ealing in the course of the trio’s investigation, it isn’t long before the small town becomes bug town.

But for as much as the veneer of Grasshopper Jungle would scream cheesy 50s’ science fiction, Austin’s personal story is the heart of the novel. Dealing with the things sixteen year-old boys deal with, namely his relationships with Robbie, Shan, parents, his boss, schoolmates, and others his growing up is as central as his evolving understanding of these relationships, and subsequent attempts to navigate life socially and personally. Love, sex, friendship, ancestry, responsibility—these are some of the issues he grapples with, even as the giant mantises breed and hatch.

But while Grasshopper Jungle can be fully appreciated by the YA audience as much as adults, it's possible its simplicity may wear thin for adults after a time. Endless discussion of testicles and horniness, dogs taking a shit and porn, for as representative of the adolescent male brain the ideas may be, remain repetitive. Skipping like a record—a fact exacerbated/complemented (depending on perspective) by Smith's usage of Vonnegut’s style—means a sustained reiteration of phrases, names, speech tags, and other happenings. At times laugh out loud funny, at others it can set the eyes rolling, especially as the novel is more than four hundred pages long.

Grasshopper Jungle may be written in the style of Vonnegut, and possess much of the same wit, but where but where Vonnegut was largely satirical, Smith feels more cynical. Perhaps a better way of putting this is, the narrative of Grasshopper Jungle more often swings toward mocking, a joking “need” to wipe out humanity, than Vonnegut’s work. Going to greater extremes in its derision, particularly the animality of reproduction, there are moments Grasshopper Jungle almost feels anti-procreation, utterly despairing, as if humans would be better off subject to a praying mantis, tabula rasa-inducing apocalypse. Vonnegut would have accepted the existence of humans, even as he poked fun and lamented the inevitable results, making Smith’s the more convicted.

But a more concrete issue in the novel is inconsistency in character. Where Austin, Shan, their parents, and other side characters are presented as morally gray, even fallible, Robbie is put across as unerring, foolproof—superlative—in every decision and action. It was as if Smith couldn’t bear to bring him down to the level of the other characters. Aloof for it, scenes involving Robbie subsequently distract from Smith’s commentary and underlying character reality: Austin loses something for having an indelible friend to bounce ideas off of.

But in the end, Grasshopper Jungle remains an enjoyable novel probing confused sexuality, family relations, and other exigencies of adolescence—and yes, the praying mantis apocalypse. The novel’s style idiosyncratic enough to create reader divides, those who like it will love it, and vice versa, the litmus test being appreciation (or lack thereof) of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

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