RATING: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Sometimes, you read something that you just can’t explain. There are good “non-explanations” and bad “non-explanations”. The bad ones usually revolve around a poorly written plot, a character with no substance, a lack of depth that makes explaining it difficult—there is nothing there. Then there is the good kind, the kind that if you say too much you’ll spoil it. If you try to explain it, you won’t do it justice. The kind that are so out there that how and where and when do you even begin?
The good kind, the latter kind, is how I can only aptly describe Grasshopper Jungle. What a weird book.
Grasshopper Jungle follows Austin Szerba’s self-recorded, wacked-out history, with his co-stars: girlfriend Shann and best friend Robbie. And when they decide to do stupid high school boy stuff and break into the local thrift shop, this sets off a chain of events to the end of the world—and giant praying mantises. Literally. Told in this weirdly broken, uber-tangential narrative, Austin tries to figure out how to accept the fact that he is in love with the two most important people in his life. Also, grappling with how being horny all the time is interfering on his thoughts. And how his Polish ancestry can, in fact, tell him about his life. And how to run from monsters created in a lab from the 70s in rural Iowa.
This book is really off the wall; I don’t know where to start.
Surprising, to say the least, is that Andrew Smith is not a teenager. He’s not even a young adult. He’s a father to a college-age son, for whom he wrote the book for. So color me amazed that the strange authenticity of a confused, sixteen year old boy never wavered. It felt right, even a little hipster (despite the small town, Midwest roots.) Austin is a really conflicted kid, with no one to turn to and it worked. Even with this bizarre side plot of giant bugs having sex and eating people, Austin’s story felt more important. That was the plot, and everything was superfluous. Smith nailed it.
The narrative itself tended to be confusing in its structure (at first). If you can’t cope and adapt to reading half formed thoughts, quick changes of focus, and brash and braze descriptions, then Grasshopper Jungle may not be the book for you. Experimental YA fiction at its finest, every tangent and ever side-thought Austin had had a purpose. Not always made immediately clear, and sometimes frustrating to read, when Smith finally takes that drop of an idea he gave you 100 pages earlier and uses it, the payoff for the knowledge is monumental. This book is a test in patience, as linear writing would have ruined it.
One of the best parts about Grasshopper Jungle is its adversity to a formula. As mentioned before, it’s not only experimental in his language and structure, but in the genre norms. Not everything is happy. Not everyone is excited about Austin’s subtly proposed poly-amorous relationship. It sucks, and Austin can be so stupid in his choices. He hurts people by in naivety, and it’s not just a “misunderstanding” that gets cleared up when everyone sits down and talks. Grasshopper Jungle doesn’t have a happy ending, but an appropriate ending. Honesty is important when trying to be genuine to the voice, style, and medium working you’re working in.
Will I read something again from Smith again? Absolutely. Was Grasshopper Jungle weird? Yep. Did I explain it the best I could? I’m not even sure. This is definitely a “you love it or you hate it book”, but talking about it is a must.
In the end; the tl;dr—The strangest book you’ll probably read this year, before Smith’s Alex Crow releases. Full of sex, bugs, and Polish names full of extra consonants.
IF YOU LIKED THIS BOOK, YOU MIGHT LIKE: The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith, Plague by Michael Grant, Noggin by John Corey Whaley