Grasshopper Jungle takes angst to its allegorical limit


Not all young adult novels are for adults1, But this one is.

Grasshopper Jungle isn't Andrew Smith's first novel, but it is the one that's thrust him forward as one of the best voices in the genre

. And narrative voice is something Smith does with strong effect. He's been well situated in reviews as similar to Kurt Vonnegut. As someone who's favorite authors in high school were an even tie between Kurt Vonnegut and Chuck Palahniuk, I see the validity in the comparison, but think that Smith may bear more stylistic resemblance the latter.

Smith's protagonist, Austen Szerba, certainly has echoes of Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, of Slaughterhouse Five. Like Billy, he's almost constantly bewildered by the dramatic and absurd range of a human life, and is subject to the whims of an uncaring universe. But unlike Billy, Austen is in love with his best friend Robby. He's also in love with his girlfriend, Shann. And it's in the frankness of this confusion that Smith finds the most room for a voice that feels uniquely his own. It's a teen introduction to polyamory.

Like Palahniuk's novels, Smith's Grasshopper Jungle pushes its questions to the point of grotesquery. Universally teen-aged qualms, like what do I do with all these feelings? are translated into an apocalyptic landscape populated with man-eating, refrigerator-sized praying mantises. Taking existential angst to its allegorical limit is a practice that made Palahniuk famous– Invisible Monsters functions in the same way. And just like I loved Invisible Monsters, I bet teenaged me would have loved Grasshopper Jungle.

Also like Palahniuk's Invisible Monsters and Fight Club, the major catalyst for the rising action of the novel is kicked off by an act of violence. In Grasshopper Jungle, Austen and Robby are gay-bashed outside a long deserted mall that, incidentally, contains the chemical that will begin the apocalypse, which the boys accidentally trigger. Militarized corn subsidies and empty vessels of consumerism both pepper the landscape of this novel effectively, making the ultimately bizarre conclusion to the novel feel inevitable.

Reading this book viscerally reminded me exactly how I felt in high school. And making a novel about man-eating praying mantises, unstoppable corn, and the Midwest feel like a mirror to an adult, Californian reader is a pretty impressive feat. And if at some turns, depth feels sacrificed at the altar of shock–a criticism he also shares with Palahniuk–Smith eschews the expectations on the young adult genre so thoroughly that, ultimately, it may be a worthy price to pay.

Read this to get grossed out and forced to remember your teens. And also, pretty delighted that weird is here to stay.

1. Most are.