I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.
Grasshopper Jungle is a novel about a lot of things, but for the sake of simplifying it down to a pithy blurb, let’s just say that it’s about a sixteen-year-old boy named Austin who is going through some serious angst about his sexuality–namely, that he simultaneously loves and wants to have sex with his girlfriend, Shann, and his best friend, Robby–and it is also about the apocalypse via giant, voraciously hungry and horny praying mantises that the two boys accidentally unleash. Oops.
I would like to start by saying holy shit.
I finished this book last night, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around how insanely awesome it is. It’s basically a combination of some of the things I love most in the world: a complex coming-of-age story that incorporates questions of sexuality; a really, really, REALLY fucking weird B science fiction movie-esque apocalypse story; and a unique, pitch-perfect voice. A lot of reviews have drawn parallels to Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick, and you know what? Those comparisons are well deserved.
First, let’s talk about sex. There is a lot of sex in this book. A LOT. Whether it’s people doing it, or six-foot tall praying mantises copulating basically always (sometimes while eating each other!), or Austin’s litany of all the things that make him horny (spoiler alert: just about everything does), or his perpetual confusion about whether or not he is gay, sex is one of the omnipresent themes of this book. Which fits, because you know what? Even when witnessing the end of the world at the hands of a mad scientist’s experiment gone oh so horribly wrong, it makes sense that the teenage boy narrating it would still be utterly unable to stop thinking about sex. Here is a really great snippet about sex that also illustrates Austin’s great narrative voice:
Robby was such a suave communicator when it came to relaying messages to Shann. In fact, I believed it was the biggest component of why she was so in love with me. Sometimes, I wished I could cut off Robby’s head and attach it to my body, but there were more than a couple things wrong with that idea: First, uncomfortably enough, it kind of made me horny to think about a hybridized Robby/Austin having sex with Shann; and, second, decapitation was a sensitive topic in Ealing.
Well, anywhere, really. But, in Ealing during the late 1960s there was this weird string of serial murders that went unsolved. And they all involved headlessness.
Austin’s confusion about his sexuality rang heart-breakingly true. I especially appreciated how crushing Shann’s reaction to the truth about Austin and Robby’s relationship was. Often, both in the media and in fiction, when we witness homophobia we automatically view that person as a bigot and an all around shitty person. (At least, that’s how non-shitty people SHOULD view homophobia). However, Smith spends over half the book making Shann a sympathetic character, so that when she transmutes her hurt and betrayal into an outward expression of queerphobia, the emotional devastation that wreaks is all the more powerful. I also loved that there is never a definitive answer as to the exact, precise nature of Austin’s orientation – again, this rings true, because for so many people there is no precise box that they can check off. Here’s yet another great quote along those lines:
“Do you think I’m queer, Rob?” I asked.
“I don’t care if you’re queer, ” Robby said. “Queer is just a word. Like orange. I know who you are. There’s no one word for that.”
Isn’t that nice?
Plus, you know, six-foot-tall mantises biting people in half and shit like that.
Point being, this book is incredible. It’s a great apocalypse story, it’s a great coming-of-age story, it’s a great story about queerness and the forms it can take, it’s a great story about just how much secrets can fuck shit up. The characters and details of a small, dying town are deftly realized. There are no tidy endings or resolutions, but despite that the book feels wrapped-up and complete. It is super, SUPER violently weird though, and so it may not be for, well, a lot of people. But it is for me. Oh yes, it is for me.
For music I chose R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” because obviously.
(And I feel fiiiiiiiine.)
Where I got it: The library
Featured image: A Clear-Winged Grasshopper in Nova Scotia, Canada. Photo (cc) Keith Pomakis.