This is more a critical analysis than a review and is therefore littered with spoilers of varying degrees.
By this point, Grasshopper Jungle needs no introduction having already swept up a variety of accolades including wide critical acclaim, starred reviews, a movie option as well as winning the Boston Globe-Horne Book Award and receiving a Printz honor in 2015. It is the bright green book that could and has helped mark a well-deserved turning point in Smith’s literary career as he joins the ranks of current hot authors. It is a madcap, diverse, clever book that blends genres, time periods and story lines.
Grasshopper Jungle is also one of those books where I can see all of the things Smith is doing that are clever and smart but I don’t particularly care for or appreciate any of them on a personal level because I am too busy deeply not enjoying it.
The diversity here and Austin being refreshingly whoever the hell he wants to be is great and much needed.
But at the same time Austin (and his friends) are painfully careless. Like Tom and Daisy Buchanan, they are careless people who leave a trail of broken things in their wake. Yet Austin is embraced and beloved while Daisy (and Tom as well) is cast as a vapid villain. Which is part of why, for me, it became impossible to talk about or even think about this book without also considering the matter of gender.
Would a girl ever get away with being this careless while also being beloved by readers? Would a girl get to act like this and we would all say “oh I guess this is just a realistic description of a teenaged girl in all her hyper-sexualized and self-absorbed glory”? I doubt that very much.
Austin walking through life doing whatever he wants (to the point of ending the world) without any consequences to his person is a constant throughout the novel. Even at the very end, after ending the world, Austin and Robby are driving away and accidentally run over a little boy. But the little boy is also a grasshopper monster, so it’s okay. No consequences.
If this book were narrated by a girl instead of by Austin, this would have been an entirely different story. I could be wrong or unfair to think this, but I feel safe saying that if this book were narrated by a girl all anyone would be saying is that she is a self-obsessed bitch with no depth. I don’t think it would have even lasted long enough in anyone’s mind to be garnering acclaim and literary awards.
(Similarly I feel like if this were a female author it would have been dismissed out of hand as too genre but that is a totally different matter.)
There is a lot to like about Grasshopper Jungle. I liked the friendship. I liked that we saw how the world ends.I never found myself particularly dazzled by the writing which from what I can tell is reminiscent of the voice Smith adopts in every novel (which is problematic here since there is no authorly narrator but a first person one).
I never much cared about Austin or Robby or Shann as characters. More frustrating, for me, was the fact that Shann and other women in the novel barely were characters as they spent most of the novel sidelined. It’s highly likely that the routine marginalization or objectification of the female characters was unintentional. But that doesn’t change the fact that it still means something. It still counts.
The ideas Smith raises about “history” and “truth” (or alternatively History and Truth) in Grasshopper Jungle are interesting but by having Austin mention them so many times I found myself doubting everything he said. It’s like a child asking “Do you believe me?” after telling an obvious lie. With that aspect in place I’m not even sure how much of this story I am supposed to believe or take at face value. All of it? None of it? Who knows.
The fact that I thought so hard shows how much Smith has done well and if you want to read a zany book that asks (even if it might not answer) a lot of interesting questions, this is the book for you. It remains, however unfortunately, a book that was not for me.