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.

On YA Novels with Male Bisexuality – Eddie De Oliveira’s “Lucky”

Front cover of Eddie de Oliveira's Lucky

Front cover of Eddie De Oliveira’s Lucky

As YA author Malinda Lo once pointed out in her wonderful discussion of bisexual characters in YA literature, “representations of bisexual characters remain few and far between.” This, as Lo pointed out, has a lot to do with the perception of bisexuality in contemporary society, where it is often viewed as an “excuse” for admitting one’s homosexuality, or it is viewed as a “lifestyle” embraced by people who are supposedly greedy or that take sexual promiscuity to the extreme. Society has a long way to go in terms of veering away from these stereotypes.

Male bisexuality in YA fiction is extremely scarce. Lo points out Cassandra Clare’s series as one of the only examples of male bisexuality within the genre (that she could think of). In 2011, Alex Sanchez, one of the most known authors of gay YA fiction, published his novel Boyfriends with Girlfriends, which also contains a representation of bisexuality that is designed to directly challenge the preconceived notions of individuals who are attracted to both men and women (and in my opinion, it is a fantastic introduction to the hardships that bisexual individuals face).

One of the lesser known novels that directly deals with issues of male bisexuality is Eddie De Oliveira’s Lucky, originally published by Scholastic in 2004. Taking place in England (as made obvious by the abundance of British slang peppered throughout the text), the novel focuses on Sam, the protagonist, who is trying to come to grips with his attraction to both men and woman throughout his first year of college. This trial is made much more difficult when he meets Toby, a classmate who has dated both men and women in the past, and who is not afraid to admit it.

The novel, in many ways, follows many of the steps that are seen in the coming out story: there’s a moment of ignorance, a moment of realization, the crisis, the trials, the step out of the closet, and acceptance. All-in-all, I thought the novel was an entertaining and interesting read, although I foresee that some readers may have a couple of issues with it.

Many readers of this novel might be upset when they realize that the main character rarely explores his attraction to men through physical means, but rather, he purely deliberates it through thought and emotion. The character makes his attraction to men explicit, but throughout the entire novel, he does not once kiss another man (and I mean a kiss… not a peck on the cheek). It seems that every time he comes close to achieving some sexual intimacy with another male character, “something” happens.

Despite the fact that Sam’s sexual attraction to men is never acted upon, he does express said attraction, and it bothers him to the point of torture. In a moment where he reaches the climax of his sexual crisis, Sam asks himself:

…did I fancy boys and girls?–or did I just like boys a lot as friends, or did I feel closer to them than girls, and does sex define sexuality, and if I wanted to hug and hold hands but nothing more, did that make me gay or bi? My state of mind was as tangled as a bowl of spaghetti. (130)

Sam constantly denies his attraction to men, this this denial is challenged when he begins to develop an attraction to Toby; an attraction that becomes unbearable once Toby begins to date a woman named Lucy. Seeing Toby together with Lucy drives Sam into fits of rage and jealously, and he ultimately comes to grips with his attraction to both genders due to a prolonged series of events (which I’m not going to spoil here).

Personally speaking, I thought the novel was overall touching and funny, although there are times when I felt that the plot became a bit repetitive, especially when it came to the characters uncontrollable frustration as he dealt with his emerging sexuality and the presence of countless football matches (I’m a disaster when it comes to understanding sports). These football matches, however, are important when it comes to highlighting the patriarchal and chauvinistic ideologies that torment the main character, and that influence his decision to stay in the closet.

The novel is designed to actively contest the stereotypes of bisexuality in hopes of providing the reader with a sense of enlightenment. This contestation is mostly illustrated through Sam’s friends, particularly his oldest friend Pod, who is unable to understand the nature of Sam’s attraction to men and women:

“All right, I’ll tell you what I think. I think I’m straight. I’ve always liked girls. I think Oscar Wilde was gay, he always liked boys. I don’t get how Sam can be both. Sounds to me like he’s hedging his bets. Can’t make his mind up. It’s worse than just being gay, you know. It’s slagging.” (156)

In this instance, the novel taps into the sentiments and attitudes that many people present when they directly confront the issue of bisexuality. Interestingly, Pod considers bisexuality to be a greater offence than gayness because according to him, it expresses a degree of indecision and of selfishness. The novel accurately portrays the social hierarchy that exists in terms of sexual expression, in which gayness and lesbianism are supposedly more tolerable than other expressions of sexual identity such as bisexuality and transgenderism.

I thought that De Oliveira greatly handled the representation of bisexuality in the novel, especially when it came to crafting an ending that doesn’t necessarily fall into glamour or unnecessary melodrama that is usually seen in middlebrow fiction. As a matter of fact, the novel’s ending presents the most memorable and emancipatory moment in the entire text, and I think it will help most readers get over some of the challenges of reading the novel (chiefly the lack of overt male intimacy and the overabundance of the motif of football).

All in all, De Oliveira’s text should be approached as a groundbreaking work within the realm of YA fiction, for its portrayal of male bisexuality in a positive albeit realistic fashion–particularly when male bisexuality in the genre is virtually nonexistent. The novel entertains, and it also educates without seeming overly pedantic (which is a plus). If like the main character, you are looking to “trying something new” (239) within the landscape of LGBTQ YA fiction, you should definitely give Lucky a read.

Primary Source:

De Oliveira, Eddie. Lucky. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2004. Print.

“On YA Novels with Male Bisexuality – Eddie De Oliveira’s Lucky” was originally published at http://angelmatos.net on June 9th, 2013.