February 20, 2015 by Jason Seligson
Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle is a story unlike anything I’ve ever read, and totally impossible to categorize. I know I enjoyed it a great deal, but I’ve struggled to come up with an explanation or a pitch that could describe what exactly it’s about.
According to various interviews done by Smith, Grasshopper Jungle is the kind of story that aspires to be about everything. That’s no easy task, and on some level, I think he succeeded. He says he became disenchanted with the publishing world and was about to swear off writing professionally for good. That’s when he started writing Grasshopper Jungle. Essentially, Smith took the advice that so many writers give out over and over: to not think of an audience at first, just to make sure they are writing for themselves. Smith says he honestly didn’t think anyone else would read the novel, or if they did, they’d just think he was crazy. This mentality made him feel more creative freedom than ever before.
All of this explains a lot about the finished product— because full disclosure, Grasshopper Jungle is a really insane book; probably one of the most insane books ever written. And a story like this that also aspires to be about “everything” is a rather difficult sell in the publishing industry. The book’s jacket and synopsis promise apocalypses, bugs, and mayhem, but it’s really a cursory introduction. Grasshopper Jungle is more about family history and the many kinds of love that exist—than it is about insects (although there are plenty of those).
I’m thrilled that Edgar Wright will be directing the film version. And yet, I have reservations about an adaptation might look, and how it might be received. Grasshopper Jungle is pretty grotesquely violent at times. Grasshoppers freak a lot of people out, and I count myself among them. There were several squirm-inducing scenes in the book, but, to Smith’s testament, they didn’t detract from the overall story. I hope the movie follows the same track. It’s an interesting question, though, what’s worse? Seeing someone’s vision onscreen—i.e.—being presented with an image in front of your eyes, or conjuring one up in your mind? Personally, I think the visuals will be harder to take on the big screen. But the visuals on the page in my head weren’t so attractive, either.
The most compelling parts of Grasshopper Jungle came whenever the story followed its triumvirate: Austin, Robby, and Shann. Smith deftly navigates teenage sexuality in a way that I’ve never seen done in literature before. The fact that Austin loves both his girlfriend and his best friend make him a compelling and wholly original teen protagonist. It’s another testament to what YA can do—and by that I mean everything. Smith says he wanted to write a book about “everything” and he did; nothing about this story was altered, minimized, or simplified to make it more suitable to younger audiences. That argument just doesn’t work anymore. There are no limits to the kinds of complex stories that can be told in this genre, and it’s well past time that dissenters stopped doubting the merits of the genre. What more proof does one need than Grasshopper Jungle? For all its craziness, this is one of the most ambitious, original stories I’ve ever read. If you or someone you know still has doubts about the Young Adult label, I recommend reading this book.
This isn’t much of a book review: partly because I’m still processing novel, even a couple of weeks removed from it, and partly because it’s a really hard book to talk summarize. I had no idea a story as bizarre as Grasshopper Jungle would ever be written; but, if this makes sense, I also would never have guessed I’d want to read that story. Smith takes the reader along for a ride that’s as unexpected and thrilling as it is stomach-churning. Full disclaimer: it’s graphic, violent, and vulgar. It probably goes without saying that this book is not for everyone; I’m not even sure it was for me. But Grasshopper Jungle is worth the price of admission alone for its characters, who consistently feel like real, flawed people, even in a world like this.