“Good books are always about everything.”
It’s a quote from Grasshopper Jungle, and it’s true. You can tell someone the plot of a book easily enough, but when you try to explain what a book is really about? If it’s a good book? You will find your most thoughtful descriptions to be insufficient. So I can tell you a bit about the plot of Andrew Smith’s immensely entertaining and provocative novel, and maybe a bit about what it’s like, but as for what it’s about? My very approximate answer is that it’s about the ways in which the extinction of most of the human race would not be such a bad thing.
Austin Szerba is 16 and lives in Ealing, Iowa. He is writing to us from beyond the end of the world, and since he takes history very seriously, he is careful to add in as many details about Ealing, Iowa as possible. We learn that Ealing, Iowa is not terribly indulgent of either difficult-to-pronounce surnames (like “Szczerba,” the pre-Anglicized spelling of Austin’s surname), or homosexuality. In the first pages of the book, Austin and his best friend, Robby, are beaten up by some kids from school because they know Robby is gay, and they hate gays. As Robby’s friend, Austin is under suspicion of being gay. As it stands, Austin is not sure himself what his sexual orientation is, because he loves Robby, and he loves his girlfriend, Shann, and he is constantly, tortuously horny. Uncertainty is another thing Ealing, Iowa is not indulgent of. Both Robby’s mother and Austin’s mother deal with their own uncertainties by popping Xanax every day. Austin calls them “kayaks” because of their shape, and because of the way they make a person float away.
One day Austin and Robby accidentally bring about the end of the world. The end of the world, in this case, involves giant man-eating praying-mantis-like creatures. The origin of these creatures represents a considerable source of suspense for most of the book, so though I won’t divulge it here, I will say that Austin considers the creatures to be not too different from humans in their overwhelming desire to do not much aside from fucking and eating.
Despite the man-eating praying mantises that appear near the end of the book, Grasshopper Jungle is not hard science fiction, nor is it strong on action/fighting scenes. Its obvious literary sibling is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, not only for its critique of bigotry, violence/war (Austin’s older brother has his leg and testicles blown off in Afghanistan), and conformity, but also for its interrogation of the notion of free will and absolute truth. As Austin points out, “[M]aybe history is actually the great destroyer of free will. After all, if what we blindly believe about history is true-the old cliché admonishing us to learn how not to repeat the same shit over and over again– then why do the same shitty things keep happening and happening and happening?” It mimics Vonnegut’s short, declarative sentences and coining of recurring, chorus-like phrases. In his transcription of history, Austin concludes episodes with, “More or less,” a statement that he admits qualifies nearly everything he says: “Everything is more or less of anything that you can think of.” Fans of Vonnegut will recognize the call back to the first line of Slaughterhouse Five: “All this happened, more or less.”
Smith’s book also shares with Vonnegut’s a heartbroken compassion for the sad and hard things of the world, along with the ability to hilariously skewer that world’s insanity with bracing wit. An Iowa state trooper, standing in for the United States’ worst qualities, is described as having a tattoo of the Confederate flag on the front of his scrotum. His personal motto is, “Fuck that shit. I have a gun, motherfucker.”
Grasshopper Jungle, then, really is about everything, and it is also a very good book.