Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle is a history of the end of the world, as narrated by teenager Austin Szerba. It’s about Austin’s best friend, Robby, his girlfriend, Shan, and their life in small-town Iowa—and about how Austin and Robby accidentally unleash a plague of “Unstoppable Soldiers,” mutant, 6-foot-tall man-eating praying mantises. But that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about bullies, dissolving testicles, the war in Iraq, love, Xanax, Polish immigrants, and much, much more—and it’s about how Austin ties all these seemingly unrelated events and people and objects together to write his own history. “I think it was my singular intent to write a book that nobody could ever write jacket or flap copy for,” Smith says. And it’s true: I can only sort of tell you what Grasshopper Jungle is about, beyond that it’s thrilling and challenging. Smith deftly tells the story of a teenager trying to sort out just what it means to be a teenager—for instance, is Austin in love with Shan or with Robby? Either way, he’s always horny. Smith gets at this and other teenage dilemmas by setting them against the dark and improbably funny backdrop of the insect apocalypse.
Grasshopper Jungle is less a science-fiction horror than a coming-of-age story, a contemporary love story, even a historical narrative. “The reason I started writing Grasshopper Jungle is that, back around the summer of 2011, the Wall Street Journal ran this editorial piece about darkness in young-adult literature,” Smith explains. “I was the first target—the first person they named as being just like ‘over the top,’ and in some ways implying that the things that I wrote were harmful to young people. I take those kinds of things really, really personally. It made me sick, as a matter of fact. I lost sleep over it, because I’m a parent, and I love kids, and I would never do anything to harm kids.”
The novel is the story of three friends and the connective tissue that ties them to the rest of their world, past and present. It’s about cursing and smoking, pink plastic flamingos and the value of sincerity. It’s about—well, enough. I feel compelled to list all the things that Smith manages to include, but it’s more important what all these things are doing here in the first place, why Smith bothers to surround Austin with so much. “In all my novels, I think there is this overriding theme of how things connect to each other,” he says. “I see history as Austin describes it in the book, as starting in the center and going out in all directions, like the Big Bang. I wanted to capture some of that radiation that’s going out in all these directions and how some of that radiation crosses right in front of this kid.”
We believe in Austin, and in his story, because of his candor—because he tells us, “I consider it my job to tell the truth”—even when that truth might seem absurd or impossible for him to know. Austin is a compulsive historian, driven to record every detail relevant to his life, his closet full of notebooks “filled with all the dumb shit I’ve ever done.” He takes us back in time to visit his great-grandfather and his talking European starling, to his great-great-grandfather immigrating to America and, further still, all the way back to the Neolithic cave painters at Lascaux. You can’t fit everything into a book, but Austin comes close.
“The thing about history—and Austin, he touches on this—maybe we should have written histories about Theodore Roosevelt defecating,” Smith says. “Maybe it’s the things we left out of histories that would have actually saved the world and stopped us from going down the toilet.”
Grasshopper Jungle doesn’t arrive at a big picture, though; it relishes the little pictures and how they keep cropping up time and again in unexpected ways. It’s a history with a big adolescent “I” in the middle of it, in which Austin tries to put his world together just as it’s falling apart. Whereas most teenagers tend to blow their problems out of proportion, for Austin, Robby and Shan, it literally is the end of the world. And, just as the Unstoppable Soldiers are so unnatural, even surreal, it is clear that Austin’s own self-doubt is perfectly normal.
“That’s kind of what I wanted the message—if there is one—to be for young people: There’s nothing wrong with you,” Smith says. “Austin’s qualities and Robby’s qualities and Shan’s qualities don’t really come from their sexual orientation; they come from their other character traits: their loyalty, their sense of humor, their intelligence, their willingness to solve problems for themselves or to fail sometimes but then to pick each other up as friends should.”
The giant mantises propel the story, serving as an unnerving backdrop throughout, particularly in the scenes where their existence goes unmentioned but is nevertheless felt. They give an adrenaline boost to the prosaic, heightening the importance of Austin’s sometimes-confusing relationships with his friends and the importance of that confusion. “I don’t know whether those monsters are really that important compared to what the children are seeing and feeling,” Smith says.
Smith’s take on the teenage perspective mixes an adult level of respect with a childlike refusal to judge. Grasshopper Jungle is not for teens only; it just happens to be about them. But is that what the novel’s writer thinks it’s about? “The simplest way I could say it...it just shows how urinal factories and genetically modified corn and a pizza joint in Iowa—how all of these things could possibly be connected in the life of one kid,” Smith says. “I think Grasshopper Jungle is very realistic, but at the same time, it’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s the same way our world is.”
Walter Heymann is a freelance writer and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles.