March 2021: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith

“Andrew Smith must’ve been on one special kind of high when writing this book because holy sh*t,” says Adam Silvera (author of They Both Die at the End) and in all honesty, you can’t fault his comment.

Not only is this book about giant praying mantises, the end of the world, secret government science experiments, and dissolving testicles… add into this already head-spinning mix the confusion of a teenage boy who loves his girlfriend, Shann, but is also in love with his best friend, Robbie. The resulting product is this unusual novel that feels undoubtedly as if Andrew Smith was on a different plane to the rest of us when writing it.

Austin is a teenage boy who is not shy about telling us all how horny he is, and how horny everything makes him. Our book club discussion enabled us to vent to each other about how repetitive this got, but we were able to share our love of other things that the book did well.

In the acknowledgements, Smith detailed how this book was never supposed to be published. It was a passion project, of sorts, and only recently (if 2014 can still be called recently) did it hit the shelves. This makes a lot of sense, and in the kindest way possible, it certainly felt as if it was not written to be read by someone unfamiliar with it. Just as our brains work for us personally, the repetitive strains worked well for the brain of Austin, but less so for external readers. Smith certainly did a good job of setting up callbacks that could have been quite funny if they had been used less, to greater effect. Although, some in the group did say that they ended up laughing every time Austin got horny in an entirely inappropriate moment, so it did have its audience.

On a positive note, we loved the food metaphors that gave the book its texture. The comparisons of characters’ appearances to types of food typical to Iowa were actually quite endearing (particularly those centred around corn).

We also appreciated the pride he felt about his Polish heritage, that he taught us all throughout the novel, ultimately reclaiming the Polish spelling of Szczerba (which had been changed because it was “too complicated” for Americans to say) and finding more of his identity through that reclamation.

For those of us in the group who consider ourselves sci-fi savants, the doomsday element raised the stakes and added to the enjoyment. For the more contemporary, literary-fiction minded of our numbers, it was a distraction from the most important dialogue of the book: Austin’s bisexuality. Understandably, for the nature of this book club, it took up much of our discussion time.

One big argument that often comes up with queer fiction is the statement: “I want a book that has an exciting plot, in which the main character is queer and that doesn’t matter to the plot. It is just a fact.” But we discussed how we wanted bisexuality in this book to have a bigger role in the plot. Why was that? After some thought, I think it comes down to the fact that people want queer characters who aren’t constantly questioning their identity. They’ve done the work, they’re queer and comfortable, and now they’re off to fight the Big Bad Evil Guy. I think those novels have their place, but Grasshopper Jungle had a queer dialogue of its own. “Giant grasshoppers are killing my friends (and enemies) but I love my best friend and I don’t want to hurt him or my girlfriend, and that’s what I care about right now.” I can relate, Austin. Sometimes, there are bigger things than fighting for everyone else’s survival, and you have to focus on your own stuff. Indeed, one member suggested that for Austin to have attempted to save the residents of the town would have been a bigger distraction to the plot, and it worked better this way.

Whatever your thoughts are on this book, it cannot be denied that it is a bloody weird book, and that’s what makes it so great.

If you enjoyed this book, check out Wetlands by Charlotte Roche. It follows a similar plot of discovering sexuality in a young teen, this time from the perspective of a woman.