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When a Horny Queer Boy and Giant Praying Mantises Collide – Andrew Smith’s [Grasshopper Jungle]

Front cover of Andrew Smith's [Grasshopper Jungle]

Front cover of Andrew Smith’s [Grasshopper Jungle] (2014)

This is a bizarre novel–but it’s bizarre in the best possible way. Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle: A History is an end-of-the-world narrative about love. And sexual confusion. And growth. And God. And Polish ancestry. And paranoia. And Satan. And Saints. And two-headed babies. And bisexual love triangles. And bullying. And giant praying mantises. And pill-popping mothers. And genetically modified corn. And cannibalism. And pizza. And testicle-naming. And sex. And history. And mad scientists. And bison. As Austin–the novel’s protagonist–states when contemplating the nature of histories, “Good books are about everything” (217). If you enjoy deep, strange, complex, hilarious, nonsensical, non-linear, zany, over-the-top narratives, this is definitely the young adult novel you’re looking for.

On the surface level, Grasshopper Jungle consists of two core narratives. The first core narrative, focused on depicting the end-of-the-world, is triggered when Austin Szerba and his gay best friend, Robby Brees, witness a group of bullies who accidentally unleash a deadly virus known as the MI Plague Strain 412E in the fictional town of Ealing, Iowa. In a nutshell, when this plague comes into contact with human blood, it transforms infected humans into giant praying mantises that only do two things: “They eat and they fuck” (135). Austin and Robby attempt to explore the nature of the plague while also trying a way to prevent an emerging  population of ravenous, sexually-charged mantids from becoming the world’s foremost apex predators. The second, and more interesting core narrative centers on matters of queerness–Austin is in love with both his girlfriend, Shann, and his best friend, Robby. As Austin confesses when coping with the guilt of loving two people at the same time:

…I sat there and thought about how I was ripping my own heart in half, ghettoizing it like Warsaw during the Second World War–this area for Shann; the other area for queer kids only–and wondering how it was possible to be sexually attracted and in love with my best friend, a boy, and my other best friend, a girl–two completely different people, at the same time. (162)

These two core narratives twist and turn in convoluted ways, ultimately creating an effect of chaos, confusion, and instability that makes this reading rich and challenging. The thematic and narrative complexity of this novel is further charged via the implementation of stream-of-consciousness narration. Because of this, as Austin attempts to discuss the novel’s two core narratives, he often digresses into discussions of his living and dead family members, political figures, biology, and the act of documenting events. He also speculates about multiple events simultaneously, reflecting on what other characters are going through as he faces his own dangers and crises. Reading this novel thus feels akin to watching five television screens depicting five different (yet loosely interrelated) events at the same time. This multifaceted narrative structure, however, works brilliantly in Smith’s novel because:

  1. It invokes the sense of panic and turmoil that an apocalyptic event would trigger within the mind of a teenage protagonist, who’s usually dealing with the pains of transitioning from childhood and adulthood.
  2. It mobilizes the theme of paranoia that haunts the novel. Since Austin feels helpless in a world that is undergoing a state of unraveling and undoing, his only alternative to cope with this emerging world is to establish as many connections as he possibly can between people and events–even when said connections are forced or entirely fabricated. As Austin points out when documenting a series of events occurring simultaneously: “History is my compulsion. I see the connections” (71). His mission is to make a whole out of the fragments that he gathers.

Austin’s compulsion to document and curate history is another element that adds narrative depth to Grasshopper Jungle, for this compulsion is what frames the text. When we read the novel, we are delving into Austin’s mind as he attempts to recall, write down, abridge, and edit his own history, and the history of the world before it ended. As the narrative unfolds, we develop an awareness of the events that Austin jots down on paper, and we also witness the events that he hesitates to share with other people. It also becomes clear that he completely fabricates events when writing his history to reify certain connections that he visualizes. This notion becomes concrete when Austin describes the secret love affair that his great-grandfather, Andrzej Szczerba, had with a Jewish atheist named Herman Weinbach. According to Austin, Andrzej and Herman were in a clandestine gay relationship for over a year, until Herman died of Pneumonia in 1934. While coping with his grief, Andrzej “forces himself sexually onto” a young woman named Phoebe Hildebrant (220), and nine months after, Austin’s grandfather, Felek Szczerba is born. Realistically speaking, there is no way that Austin could know this information, for it is revealed that Andrzej dies without disclosing the details of his relationship with Herman.

Why does Austin spend a significant amount of time in effort in creating this fictional queer biography for his dead great-grandfather? Austin later discloses, while discussing a different event, that “historians need to fill in the blanks on their own. It is part of our job” (261). With this in mind, the history that Austin creates is not written to “prevent us from doing stupid things in the future” (8), but rather, it is his attempt to narratively repair his own life and own story–a life that was convoluted and fragmented even before the appearance of the monstrous insects. Austin’s fictional narrative of his great-grandfather’s homosexuality arguably be approached as his attempt to frame himself in a narrative that has unfortunately persisted throughout decades and arguably centuries. Austin needs to feel as if he’s not alone in his struggle to understand his sexual and romantic compulsions, especially since the world he previously knew no longer exists. This effort to frame himself in a prolonged narrative of sexual struggle also explains why Austin is so drawn to the figure of Saint Kazimierz in the novel, for he is characterized as a young man who also dealt with the pressures and tortures of sexuality at an early age.

If you dislike spoilers or if you haven’t read the novel, you should stop reading here.

I’m deeply impressed with how the novel handles its representation of queer sexuality. Throughout most of novel, we are left wondering whether Austin will end up having to choose between the two loves of his life, and whether he will find a way to end his sexual confusion. However, in the novel’s epilogue, Austin affirms that he continues to love both Robby and Shann, and he ultimately refuses to comply with heteronormative models of kinship in a new, post-apocalyptic world. As he discloses about five years after the world has ended:

I continue to be torn between my love for Shann Collins and Robby Brees. But I no longer care to ask the question, What am I going to do?

Sometimes it is perfectly acceptable to decide not to decide, to remain confused and wide-eyed about the next thing that will pop up in the road you build. Shann does not like it. Robby Brees asks me to live with him. I stay in my own room, which I share with my strong Polish son, Arek, and we are very happy. (383)

Austin thus inhabits a new world with new rules–a world with new possibilities of being and existing. I find it interesting that Grasshopper Jungle presents the idea that it is only possible to embrace confusion and refute stable categorizations of identity once our current world ceases to exist. Although Austin laments everything left behind with the advent of a new history, he looks forward to the possibilities of being a New Human. It is often said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine a change in our current mode of existence. Smith’s novel boldly and brilliantly pushes us to envision a new mode of existence by obliterating the world that many of us know and (problematically) cherish. Grasshopper Jungle is a work that all young adult novels should aspire to be. Andrew Smith is now on my radar, and I’m really looking forward to his future works.

As always, your thoughts, comments, and opinions are more than welcome!

Work Cited

Smith, Andrew. Grasshopper Jungle: A History. New York: Dutton Books, 2014. Print.

You can purchase a copy of Smith’s novel by clicking here.

Praying mantis cover image by Bill & Mark Bell.

Angels in America

On Stasis, Mobility, and Postmodernism: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America

Front cover of Tony Kushner's Angels in America (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika)

Front cover of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika)

Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word “free” to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me. (Kushner 228)

The quote above depicts the moment in which Belize, one of the central characters of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, challenges the optimistic view of American freedom, and he ultimately challenges idealism and “Big Ideas.” Belize, a black, gay, ex-drag queen and nurse, is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of queerdom in the play in terms of his anti-normative positionality in a mid-1980s America. This liminal position not only allows Belize to notice and question the limits and destructiveness of idealism, but it also allows him to reject it all together: “I live in America, Louis, that’s hard enough, I don’t have to love it. You do that” (Kushner 228). Belize complies with the overall aim and objective of the play, which is the importance of questioning everything in light of the inevitable unsustainability and paradoxical nature of (American) life. In a world full of hate, sickness, global warming, religious and spiritual incongruity, corruption, greed, and inequality, how is it even possible to find stability and meaning? What does it mean to be sexual, spiritual, healthy, or successful in a world where these concepts are approached discordantly by different people?

Kushner’s Angels in America, a Pulitzer Prize-wining play which takes place within the peak of the AIDS crisis, attempts to address all of the questions above through the lives of characters who are in one way or another affected by the syndrome. It is through the play’s exploration of AIDS that the goal of postmodernism, which is to question everythingis put into practice. Naturally, the juxtaposition of AIDS and postmodernism is absolutely feasible given their similarities of structure and meaning. In Spaces of Belonging, for instance, Elizabeth H. Jones alludes to Lee Edelman’s views to argue that AIDS and postmodernism are similar in their “disrespect for the laws of orderly representation and hierarchy” (263) and their linkage to contemporary issues such as the “decline of faith in rational, transparent representation” (263). Thus, Belize’s confrontation with Louis, as illustrated above, mocks the view of America as a stable entity, and more importantly, it ridicules Louis’s belief in his knowledge–despite Louis’s assertions, he understands little about his Mormon/closeted/Republican boyfriend Joe, he knows nothing about America, and he is oblivious about how the society he idealizes is crumbling beneath his feet.

A similar obliviousness can be seen through the character of Roy Cohn, the cartoonishly evil lawyer and powerbroker that we can’t help but pity (to some extent) towards the end of the play. When he is diagnosed with AIDS, Roy takes it as a personal offence because he deems that his doctor is labeling him as a homosexual. The doctor tries to state the facts of Roy’s condition and its causes, ultimately affirming that Roy has “had sex with men, many many times” (Kushner 51). Roy proceeds to make the claim that who he sleeps with does not define who he is:

Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. This is what a label refers to. (Kushner 51)

Here, we observe Elizabeth H. Jones’ views on AIDS and postmodernity manifesting within the play. Roy not only argues that labels place one within a social hierarchy, but he also points out that they serve to represent and restrict an individual to certain forms of being. He then proceeds to establish that labels  ultimately indicate how much power (“clout”) an individual possesses. Given that Roy views the label of homosexuality as a label for individuals with no power, and seeing as he repeatedly affirms “I have clout. A lot” (Kushner 51), he challenges the extent to which homosexuality is able to transparently represent him. Though his rejection of homosexuality may seem to be an attempt to disrupt stable representation, he does so by embracing another hierarchical binary: the powerful versus the powerless. It is here that AIDS works as a postmodern agent in the play. Despite the fact that Roy declares himself to be on the top of the food chain, and despite the fact that he declares himself as a man with a lot of clout, AIDS renders him powerless, while simultaneously putting him on the same level as everyone else who dies with AIDS. Despite the fact that he views his power as stable, AIDS destabilizes it. Now, we run the risk of viewing AIDS as a karmic agent in the play, out to feed on the evil and the power-hungry, but this changes when we realize that AIDS is not controlled by power or hierarchy, and there are relatively good and sympathetic characters (such as Prior) who are affected by the syndrome as well.

Stability is also challenged through the character of Prior Walter, who can in many ways be approached as the protagonist of the play. In the climax of Angels in America, Prior is approached (in a dream) by an Angel (also known as the Continental Principality of America). The Angel declares that Prior is a prophet who must disperse the ideas present within the sacred implements, which turn out to be “The Tome of Immobility, of respite, of cessation” (Kushner 265). This Tome is meant to aid Prior in bringing a halt to the instability caused by humanity’s upward mobility: “As the human race began to progress, travel, intermingle, everything started to come unglued” (Kushner 176). Thus, stasis, finality, and ultimately, death are seen as a solution to the world’s postmodern state–a way of bringing order to chaos. Prior ultimately rejects his role as a prophet, simply because he views life as dynamic rather than stable. He finds stasis to be a paradoxical mode of being, because to achieve stillness in an active environment requires exertion and yearning:

It just. . . . It just. . . . We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks–progress, migration, motion is . . . modernity. It’s animateit’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s desire for. Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait. (Kushner 264)

In this case, progress is not viewed as linear, but it is viewed as motion. Progress involves desire, a denial of stasis, and a refusal of order and permanence. Rather than embracing death, Prior desires to embrace life and the ability to keep on moving: “I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do” (266). Immobility, stability, and transparency are impossible in a postmodern world. But as Belize would say, just because we live in it, it doesn’t mean we have to love it. Being, according to Kushner’s play, is not a teleological movement, but rather, a movement with no fixed endpoint.

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Acknowledgments: I’d like to thank Leanne MacDonald, Evan Scott Bryson, and Lindsay Haney for their insightful comments on this play. They really helped me to sort out my own thoughts in this analysis.

Works Cited

Jones, Elizabeth H. Spaces of Belonging. New York: Rodopi, 2007. Web.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2003. Print.

This is a poster titled "Wm. H. West's Big Minstrel Jubilee," originally published in 1900. The poster illustrates a white man "transforming" into a black man, colloquially known as donning "black face." Some characters within "The Confidence Man" question whether Guinea was a white man disguised as a black man simply because of the unrealistic and cartoonish (and downright racist) demeanor of white people who typically disguised themselves as African Americans.

Revealing the Man beneath the “Negro”

In a previous post, I discussed issues of race in Melville’s Benito Cereno, and this week, I couldn’t help but return to the depiction of race in Melville’s works. Now, Melville’s The Confidence-Man was indeed as challenging and perplexing as I thought it would be; after all, most of Melville’s works are characterized for being “devious,” ambiguous, and downright difficult. One of the most complex characters within this narrative was the “Black Guinea,” a crippled African American beggar who ostensibly was a free slave. The narrative strongly suggests that Guinea was one of the personas donned by the Confidence-Man, seeing as it was he who listed some of the other personalities that the Confidence-Man embodied, and seeing as Guinea was accused of being an impostor—a white man pretending to be a crippled beggar of African lineage.

What caught my interest in the scenes where Guinea appears is that they say much about the perception of black people during Melville’s era. However, the perception of the African American race becomes an even more prominent and complex issue if we were to approach Guinea as a white impostor, for then, we are witnessing a white man performing and interpreting what he deems to be an accurate portrayal of blackness. Thus, within these scenes, we have blackness as distilled through three perspectives: Melville’s perspective as an author, the perspective of the white audience that surrounds the beggar (particularly the drover), and the perspective of the white man performing blackness.

What first caught my attention in terms of Guinea’s depiction and representation in The Confidence-Man was the fact that animal qualities and traits are used to describe his actions and his appearance. Guinea describes himself as “der dog widout a massa” [the dog without a master] (Melville 10). The drover states that Guinea’s appearance “seemed a dog, so now, in a merry way, like a dog he began to be treated” (Melville 11), and he even goes as far as to compare Guinea’s physical traits to that of a “Newfoundland-dog” (Melville 13). Guinea’s animalistic depiction, however, is not limited to descriptions of a canine persuasion. When Guinea shivers as he recalls the harshness of the winter cold, he moves himself into the crowd, resembling “a half-frozen black sheep nudging itself a cosy berth in the heart of the white flock” (Melville 11). Even as Guinea tries to entertain the crowd in order to “earn” cash from the surrounding crowd, the drover points out that the beggar opens “his mouth like an elephant for tossed apples at a menagerie” (Melville 11-12).

What is clear is that these animalistic qualities are alluding to the fact that the beggar perceives himself as non-human or sub-human, for he belongs to a social hierarchy that is clearly different from the white folks that surround him. Although it may be argued that this notion of Guinea as an animal may be attributed to the fact that he is crippled, and not to the color of his skin, this assumption becomes moot with the presence of a wooden-legged man. Despite the fellow limper’s physical condition, he did not draw the attention that Guinea drew from the crowd, but rather, the Guinea’s position is so inferior that the wooden-legged man stumbles against him in a threatening position, demonstrating his superiority. Thus, although his crippled state attributes to his inferior position in society, it can be argued that Guinea’s animal depiction is attributed mostly to his skin color.

Melville’s choice to depict Guinea using animal qualities is indeed an interesting literary and semantic choice. After all, animals in literature, contrary to human characters, require little to no description in order to be “understood.” Whereas we expect human characters to be described in terms of personality, dress, conduct, and intellect, animals are stereotyped or pigeon-holed into particular molds and expectations: people know what to expect when elephants, sheep, or dogs are mentioned, and not a lot of effort must go into describing how they look like or how they act. Could it be that in the case of Melville’s novel, slaves and “negroes” were no different to animals in this aspect?

At first, Guinea does seem to live up to the 19th Century stereotype of the African slave, especially when concerned with his cheerful demeanor. Despite not having a home, a master, food, or currency, Guinea happily plays music with his tambourine and entertains the crowd—alluding to the perception of slaves being extremely happy people who constantly laughed and sang in spite of their horrible living conditions. However, the drover notes that Guinea was perhaps quite adept at acting and at hiding his emotions: “whatever his secret emotions, he swallowed them, while still retaining each copper this side of the [e]sophagus” (Melville 12). Guinea’s cheerful demeanor dissipates with the presence of the wooden-legged man, and he then begins to wail in defense of who he is, and why he deserves the crowd’s charity. Notice that Guinea also seems to possess a great deal of power, seeing as he is not afraid to challenge the people that surround him. When the crowd asks him to present documentation to prove his status, and when they question Guinea’s trustworthiness, the beggar repeatedly wails “have you no confidence in dis poor ole darkie?” (Melville 18), which serves to directly challenge the crowd’s perceptions and sense of charity to the less fortunate.

This is a poster titled “Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee,” originally published in 1900. The poster illustrates a white man “transforming” into a black man, colloquially known as donning “black face.” Some characters within “The Confidence Man” question whether Guinea was a white man disguised as a black man simply because of the unrealistic and cartoonish (and downright racist) demeanor of white people who typically disguised themselves as African Americans.

Guinea thus engages in a slight appropriation of social power by alluding to the moral sympathies of the crowd, and he also disengages from the cheery and optimistic demeanor that slaves were deemed to don during the 19th century. This may be slightly problematized if we were to believe in the statement that Guinea is truly a white man in disguise, or even the Confidence-Man himself. If this notion of Guinea as an imposter were true, this supposed disruption of racial stereotypes and appropriation of social power loses its currency, for when it comes down to it, it is a white man who is undergoing the social negotiations performed by Guinea. Even more so, given the fact the Guinea is quite believable as a “negro” according to the perception of other characters, Melville could have been further perpetuating the stereotypes of blackness that existed during his time.

True, at first it may seem that Melville’s approach towards Guinea seems somewhat stereotypical, racist, and inhumane; but in turn, he highlights the hypocrisy that exists within 19th century perspectives of race. It is convenient to view Guinea as an animal until he requests the human virtue of charity—it is then that he is required to offer human proof that justifies his requests. Although Melville’s perspectives of race are perhaps as ambiguous in The Confidence-Man as they were in Benito Cereno, we must admit that the portrayal of Guinea in The Confidence-Man certainly opens up room for debate, racial emancipation, and the hypocrisies of racial stereotypes.

On a side note, I must confess that The Confidence-Man has been my least favorite Melville text up to now. I found it disjointed and nonsensical, and overall less enjoyable than his short stories. Some argue that Melville intended for the novel to be disjointed and full of gaps–an early example of a postmodern text. Postmodern or not, the book was too difficult and inaccessible for my own personal tastes.

Source:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0192837621/

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This image titled “Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee” is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.