A review by Nalini Haynes
Grasshopper Jungle is the history of the end of the world starting with Austin, leaping to Austin’s great-great-grandfather, meandering back and forth between history and the present, through the story of his “sexually-confused” (actually gay) great-grandfather to the present when Austin accidentally helps cause the end of the world, Starship Trooper–style.
Austin is a 16-year-old boy obsessed with sex and eruptions, both accidental and intentional. He’s in love with Shann Collins. The only problem is, he’s also in love with his best friend, Robbie Bree. Robbie is gay. Austin daydreams about a 3-way between them.
After experimenting — kissing at Robbie’s request — Austin and Robbie break in to an office with lots of weird shit on the shelves. Some local bullies break in to the shop independently to find the office door open and the light on. Easy access means easy theft of a glass globe with a pulsing substance inside. No-one worries much about the label “plague” until 6-foot-tall praying mantises start eating people in the sleepy town of Ealing, Iowa.
You could say that the children of the corn have taken on a new aspect. If you were into puns. Which I’m not. But you will never view corn the same way again!
Austin’s story-telling style is described (within the novel) as being like an explosion: talking about all the detail around the event as well as the event. Grasshopper Jungle is written in this inimitable style, breaking all the rules of storytelling, focusing on chronologically-distant minutiae when the world is about to end. Smith pulls the threads together so everything is related, no matter how superficially irrelevant it may appear.
Most of the language is deceptively simple; the reader can almost hear a teenage boy talking, rambling from one subject to another, taking us down the rabbit hole into a teenage boy’s sex-obsessed world while the world is coming to an end.
Did I mention the world is coming to an end? Austin gets there in the end. After starting with the end of the world practically at the beginning.
Plato’s Cave is referenced indirectly via Austin’s obsession with the bison painting in Altamira and his philosophising about the participants. There’s a surprising amount of philosophy included in a very accessible story.
Andrew Smith’s style of writing is brilliant but it’s not for everyone. I suspect a lot of teenage boys will love Grasshopper Jungle — particularly the boys whose schools ban this novel like The Chocolate War was banned within the pages of this novel. (If you want to get teenage boys reading, ban this book while making sure it remains within their reach.) Austin’s sexual awakening adds diversity to the science fiction genre, a genre that Grasshopper Jungle references as dominated by men (only male authors of a particular type are collected in a particular library).
I highly recommend Grasshopper Jungle as a science fiction novel exploring philosophy and sexuality in a narrative accessible to a wide range of readers, from young adult to adult. Be patient with the story to reap rewards, Grasshopper.
Format: paperback, 394 pages
Publisher: Hardie Grant