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.

Logan Kain’s [The Dead Will Rise First]

Front cover of Logan Kain's The Dead Will Rise First

Front cover of Logan Kain’s The Dead Will Rise First

Lately, I’ve been on a quest to read self-published young adult fiction, mostly because I’ve noticed that self-published authors tend to take more risks when crafting their stories. The reasons for this are obvious: there is no middle-man, no editor, and even more importantly, self-published authors do not face issues such as censorship and the de-gaying of characters. During the winter break, one of the most interesting self-published gay YA novels that I read would have to be Logan Kain’s The Dead Will Rise First: A Manuscript Found in What Was Known as Texas. 

I thought the book’s cover and the title were intriguing, but what ultimately captivated my attention was the novel’s unique premise: during the rapture, the souls of Christian believers are whisked away to heaven, leaving behind the mortal bodies that these souls inhabited. Given that these bodies (known as the “freed” or “the neighbors” in the novel) no longer possess a soul, they don’t have a consciousness that allows them to deliberate between right and wrong. The “freed” still possess memories of their past lives, they can think, they can organize, and they can feel certain emotions, but they do not fear death, and more importantly, they give in to any carnal or primal desire that they feel. Thus, they eat human flesh, they rape anyone that arouses them even in the slightest, and they burn houses in a demonic and celebratory fashion. The freed are like a more evolved and perverse type of zombie, capable of thinking and of dying, and cursed with the insatiable urgency to unleash their id (in a Freudian sense).

In the midst of these events, the novel focuses on a group of “survivors” who are not transported into heaven during the rapture due to their lack of faith or belief in God. The protagonist of the story, TJ, is one of these survivors. Early on in the novel, TJ reveals that he is gay, and when I first read the novel, I thought that the narrative was insinuating that TJ wasn’t raptured by God because of his sexual orientation. However, the reason TJ was not “rescued” has more to do with the tumultuous relationship that he develops with God because of the tension that exists between his sexual orientation and the unwavering demands of religion. The novel hints that TJ’s parents and religious figures within his community try to coerce him into living a celibate life in order to assure that his soul would be free from damnation, but TJ finds it difficult to suppress and ignore feelings that come so naturally to him. Because of the contradictions that arise between his feelings and the teachings of the church, TJ proclaims his hatred to God–which thus prevents his soul from joining the ranks of heaven.  TJ ultimately rejects the possibility that God has good intentions, and this rejection is fueled by the repercussions produced by the rapture itself. Not only is he unable to be saved, but now he must struggle to survive in a world in which the “freed” have become morally corrupt rapists and flesh eaters:

“God, I don’t get you. First, you say in the Bible being gay is wrong, and then you make me gay. I pray and pray and beg to be straight and you don’t let that happen. If that wasn’t already enough, you let everyone turn into monsters, and now, now that everything has gone to Hell around me, you put Ryan right next to me. Well God, I’m done playing by your rules. Do your worst.” (location 822)

The Dead Will Rise First explores the extent to which our lives are predestined to end up in a certain way, and even more so, it explores how social constructs such as culture and religion regulate bodies to the extent that non-normative individuals aren’t able to thrive or live a comfortable life. TJ’s story illustrates this tension: because religion tries to regulate his sexuality, TJ ends up hating God and religion. Because he hates God and religion, he is unable to be saved and must now live in a world ridden with flesh-eating rapists.

Kain’s  novel beautifully discusses the notion of survival and livability, and this is perhaps one of the text’s greatest assets. Naturally, livability and survival are prominent themes within most (post)apocalyptic fiction, especially when it comes to texts with zombie-like creatures. This novel possesses many of the elements and rituals found in most, if not all, “zombie” fiction–such as the search for food and weapons, the creation of shelter, and the struggles of power and sanity that manifest in small communities. However, behind these orthodox struggles found within the genre, we witness how TJ contemplates the woes of not being able to live the way he wants to due to the restrictions imposed on him by religion and society. Before the events of the rapture, it can be argued that TJ’s queer self was struggling to live and to survive, and even before the advent of the “freed,” TJ often confronts mindless and insensitive subjects who threaten to eradicate TJ’s queerness with no solid rhyme or reason. It is thus slightly ironic that the end of the world is approached as an event that allows TJ to fully embrace his sexuality and put it into practice–although after the rapture, he struggles to survive in a physical sense, his sexuality is given a space to thrive due to the obliteration of socio-cultural and religious restraints. With the end of society comes the end of regulation. Does this imply that an apocalypse is necessary for queerness to thrive? Maybe not an apocalypse, but definitely a dramatic reconfiguration of norms and regulations as we currently know and live them.

This novel offers wonderful food for thought, and overall, I thought it was a clever satire with great moments of suspense and thrill. I did think that certain elements within the novel were rushed, particularly the central romance that takes place within the novel–but after careful thought and consideration, I’ve come to appreciate this rushed nature. After all, given that the characters are put into a hopeless and precarious situation, I understand that they have little time to overthink and to overanalyze their feelings. The end of the world forces the characters to think and act quickly, and given that death always seems to be lurking around the corner, they must deal with their troubles with more immediacy and urgency.

Another element that sets this novel aside is its tone, its directness, and its harshness. If you are a fan of happy outcomes and happy endings, this is not a novel that I’d recommend to you. However, if you appreciate unhappy endings and outcomes as a method of delivering an important, thought-provoking message, then you should give this novel a shot. Rather than focusing on the novel’s lugubrious and somber events and consequences, why not trying focusing on the reasons the novel demands its particular ending and its gloomy outcomes?

You can purchase a copy of Kain’s novel here.

Work Cited

Kain, Logan. The Dead Will Rise First: A Manuscript Found in What Was Known as Texas. Smashwords, 2013. Amazon Kindle E-book.