Subscribe to SLJ
Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Grasshopper Jungle

This book. This book! I loved it. Also I hated it. It has amazing characters, and then it has crimes against female characters. It’s A Tale of Two Cities for me on this one — this book contains multitudes and also contradictions galore. It probably deserves an award, except when it doesn’t.

There’s a reason I’ve been dragging my feet on writing this review. Actually, reasons. Lots of them. This is an extraordinarily impressive book. Except when it isn’t. ARGH!

Let’s get the crazy part out of the way first.

The premise and plot are just insane. Acid-tripping insane. This is unlike anything else out there (and when I consider this alongside Marbury Lens, I think I am really glad not to live in Andrew Smith’s mind). That’s good. Original is good, and original that makes you think, which is what this craziness does, is even better.

Whether it goes anywhere, I can’t say. I’ve read it twice now. I’ve annotated “the shit out of it”, as Austin would say. Every time I thought I had something, Austin spelled it out for me a few/dozen/hundred pages down the line, which made me think I didn’t have anything at all except a smug self-satisfied egotistical narrator making sure readers didn’t miss what he had to say. On the other hand, Austin is not the author, so it’s maybe still an impressive act of writing, even if in the end the smart statements and portentous soundbites and the meditation on history are all just a bunch of blather. Because Austin is talking about his own story, not history. He’s convinced that he is the center of everything and he’s constructing a narrative to support that.

So let’s talk about voice. The voice is amazing. It’s specific and peculiar and yet strangely plausible and seems real, inasmuch as any voice narrating the end of the world thanks to massive people-eating bugs can be real. It’s repetitive and recursive and redundant, but with panache. It paints a picture of the tale teller that is quite vivid — so much so that I find myself capable of quite a lot of dislike for him. He becomes more selfish and self-aggrandizing in terms of the centrality of his history to the story he is telling as the novel goes on, which I want to believe is a response to trying to make sense of a world gone mad, except he’s narrating the whole thing from a point after the fact and so I don’t know that he would show change in that subtle of a manner. He also starts making things up, sometime after the bugs hatch — all the stuff about the Vice President and testicles is clearly unsubstantiated.

Still, it’s a very effective and audacious voice and it’s the thing I love most about this one. Also Austin’s bizarre all roads converge on me theories, while irritating in some ways, are narratively unique and interesting. Props for voice and style, is what I’m saying, and even the questions I have about the shifts (from truth to lies, from history to me-story) are intriguing, although maybe on a third read I would decide the shift is a flaw.

Also design: this is a great package.

Plot? Well, even putting aside the acid-trippiness, I think there are a few holes, but who knows. I don’t think Austin is actually a reliable narrator so any holes can just as easily be attributed back to voice.

From a writing perspective, I find this on the whole impressive in a perplexing way.

But then there’s the what it’s saying, and I find myself with a lot of issues.

The women: Shann is smart and fierce and a total doormat who exists only so Austin’s sperm can make a new baby for whom Austin can reclaim those syllables in his name. Austin’s mom is wife, mother, sister: we never hear any family story from her side. Only the Polish side, the male side, matters. Robbie’s mom is a hyper-sexualized figure who seems to exist mostly so that there can be another baby in Eden. And Shann’s mom is only as useful as her nursing degree. We also have Eileen Pope (public lice, has sex on a ratty couch, becomes a horny bug); the ugly sex ed teacher who commits suicide; and the hookers with the hearts of gold who partially deflower Austin’s brother in a hotel, a small arc that I found particularly unlikely and misogynistic. Maybe this is all Austin’s biases again, or maybe it’s authorial. I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter for the Printz, unless it’s actually the third possibility —  lousy writing. Short of asking the author, we can’t know, but I could imagine a committee conversation that concludes that the weak female characters are the result of writing weaknesses, not a statement about the narrator’s attitudes; I can’t find evidence in the text to make a case that this is Austin and not either author or writing.

There’s also a slight strand of racism, but I think that is Austin and deliberate and not weak writing, so although I didn’t like it, that shouldn’t make a difference for award consideration.

And finally there’s the way that Austin gets to have his cake and eat it too at the expense of LITERALLY the rest of the world, or at least North America. Is it an adolescent male fantasy, and if so, whose and why?

This is a book I will keep thinking about (sometimes, admittedly, with frustration), and in the end that kind of effect on readers is worth quite a lot when it comes to the Printz. It’s also a head-scratcher, genre-defier of a book, and that can also serve a text well. Although in this case, I could see it cutting the opposite way — how do you even begin a coherent discussion of this one?

And on top of all that, Smith has had a real dynamo of a writing year, and 100 Sideways Miles — by all accounts a more comprehensible and also very well-written book — might make Grasshopper Jungle the also ran.

So many questions! So many possibilities! And no answers. I just want someone to sit me down and explain this book to me.

Share
About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. You have articulated my feelings about this book so well!

    Here’s what got to me, before I cottoned on to how badly the women get the short end of the stick: the contempt that the narrative voice seems to have for religion and for people who are on psychiatric meds. Like, on one hand it’s totally believable coming from a smart teenage boy who feels a reactive smugness against all the people who fail to understand him. And on the other hand, nothing in the book ever cuts against that in any way; Austin coasts through on a tide of being vindicated at every turn.

    There’s a lot of good writing in here, but I think good writing has to be empathetic. It needs to seek to understand the world outside itself. I don’t think this one does.

  2. Eric Carpenter says:

    I liked this book precisely because its investigation of a teenage boy’s headspace is so unflinching. We have Austin’s account. His views on women are clear. They may be deplorable but for this narrator they are his truth. I think a multi dimensional look at the female characters would have felt shoehorned into the book. Smith would have had to override Austin’s perspective to give these characters depth. I think we would be faulting the book for lack of consistency had this occurred.
    Austin see women as potential objects of desire. Both his actions and his narrative account make this clear over and over again. We as readers should not expect anything else from our narrator (reliable or not).
    It seems that some may want this book to do something it doesn’t set out to do.

    • A “multi dimensional look at the female characters would have felt shoehorned?” I have to disagree with that. While we know Ausitn’s views and his perspective — and we know them pretty flat out — the idea that giving female characters more than one dimension would have felt shoehorned feels like an excuse for poor writing of characters. Because we know Austin has feelings for Shann, but he can’t render her as complex as the male characters here? That she can’t be more than a vessel for his sexual needs? Worse, the older women who are drug-addicted and purposeless. I don’t buy it. Making them stronger — or even looking at the overall picture of ALL the females here — wouldn’t have felt shoehorned nor inauthentic.

      We give male main characters way too many passes for the purpose of “perspective” and “point of view.” A female in the same position would have been called out (or better, in how many books with a female MC is her perspective and point of view just seen as “selfish” or “whiny?”).

      I’m with Karyn here. This is noteworthy and worth discussing, and ultimately for the Printz, will come down to writing and how it’s taken on the writing level. This story is a piece of work, and it’s commendable for what it does on the art level. It’s unforgettable. But also unforgettable is how poorly depicted the females all are, and that is weakness on the writing level. I think it lets us too easily give excuses vis a vis Austin and his mindset.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      I don’t think it’s about a multidimensional look, because Eric is right — it’s Austin’s story and Austin’s POV. But that doesn’t preclude moments where it’s revealed that what Austin thinks and sees is not the whole truth — this is what I meant when I said I couldn’t find textual evidence that it’s Austin and not a failure to write dimensional female characters. There is one moment like this, when Shann goes and finds the historical records, and there’s a sense that if the boys had just told Shann everything in the first place it would have all gone better. But it’s only the one instance, and then she’s relegated to pouting and making babies, which is not Austin’s perspective but fact, although presumably she has an interior mental and emotional life that Austin can’t see.
      Likewise, Connie and Ah Wong Sing getting it on; we’re seeing Austin’s reconstruction, so maybe there is something more in that relationship (maybe they’ve been seeing each other for years, maybe it’s love, maybe they will be the best parents ever for Amelie), but because Austin doesn’t see it — not recognize it, but visually see it, when he compulsively details all sorts of things — the writing doesn’t make it clear that the issues are Austin’s, rather than weak characterization. I’m not coming down on either side of the fence, but noting that the text in inconclusive and that it can therefore be read as a flaw in writing. Or vice versa.

    • The problem with attributing the weak characterization of women to Austin’s POV is that it ignores the fact that his best friend, Robbie, is a well-rounded character despite ALSO being the object of Austin’s sexual desire. Shann shares the same space in Austin’s brain as Robbie (he loves them both, is attracted to them both) and yet she is relegated to nothing more than a vessel for Austin’s sexual desire.

      Which tends to be a problem running through all of Smith’s novels. His examination of the bonds shared between teenage boys is exceptional—including the gray area where best-friendship bleeds into sexual attraction—however, the girls in his novels tend to be pushed into the periphery. They rarely have desires of their own, agency of their own, or personalities that exist outside of the boys they are sleeping with. I don’t believe this is intentional on the author’s part. Instead I believe his focus on the relationships between the teenage boys in his books, simply takes precedence over the characterization of the female characters that share the story.

      I actually find Shan’s characterization in Grasshopper Jungle to be less problematic than Julia’s in 100 Sideways Miles because while Shann is a major character in GH, she’s not central to the plot. In fact, Shann could have been written out of GH and the plot wouldn’t have needed much alteration. But Julia is central to 100 Sideways Miles and reads very much like a typical John Green Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

      Were Austin’s shallow characterization an anomaly within the larger world of Andrew Smith’s books, it’d be easier to attribute it to Austin’s particular worldview, but weak characterization of female characters in Smith’s work is prevalent in nearly all of his books. Female characters exist as either cold or disregarded authority figures (Stella in The Marbury Lens), completely absent (Jack’s mother in The Marbury Lens, Finn’s mother in 100 Sideways Miles, Jonah and Simon’s mother in In the Path of Falling Objects), or the object of the narrator’s sexual desire (Julia in 100 Sideways Miles, Shann in GH, Nickie in The Marbury Lens).

      So I don’t think the failings of Grasshopper Jungle’s characterization with regards to female characters can be pinned completely to Austin’s point of view. Rather, they seem to be a symptom of Smith’s dedication to writing blisteringly honest portrayals of boyhood and best friends.

      • I think your assessment here is really interesting. I disagree with the Shann vs. Julia discussion; I feel like Julia is a much more fully-fleshed female character in Smith’s work. She has a problematic background, but she has more backbone and more meat to her as a person than Shann, who is but a vessel for Austin.

        That all said, why is it okay to excuse this for male characters by a male author and NOT female characters by a female author? Smith writes “blisteringly honest portrayals of boyhood” or “boys will be boys.” But that same courtesy isn’t extended for authors like Sarah Dessen who write girls. Instead, she’s regularly put on the “romance” shelf or written off as fluff when she, too, is writing “blisteringly honest portrayals” of characters…who just happen to be girls.

        In one instance, it’s literary.
        In the other, it’s not.

        • The same courtesy should be extended to authors like Sarah Dessen. It bothers me that books by authors such as Melina Marchetta and Courtney Summers, which feature amazing female characters (while also managing to create fleshed out male characters), are often overlooked. They shouldn’t be. Books that provide unflinchingly real portrayals of girls should be valued as highly as their boy counterparts. That they’re not is a problem that can be attributed to publishers (who give them less “serious” covers), marketing people (who push them as “chick lit”), and reviewers (who raise up the boy books while downplaying similar girl books as less serious).

          • And big name bookstores that put them in the “Teen Romance” category…even when they aren’t or don’t include romance as a key part of the story.

      • The other thing is, and again, not related to the Printz/criteria, but to the broader discussion, that when we constantly extend the “boys will be boys” courtesy, we suggest boys are only ever one thing or think one thing or behave one way. Boys are dynamic and deserving of a wide lens of empathy, description, want, drive, desire, etc.

      • One more comment to this —

        I don’t think anyone is suggesting there’s an authorial intent to write weak females in Smith’s work. I certainly am not. I think Smith is quickly becoming a well-known, well-respected name for what he’s doing in YA and for great reason. He’s taking some excellent risks and doing so in dynamic ways that demand to be talked about and critically examined, like they are right here.

        That said, when readers notice a writer’s weakness IN the writing, as you have and others have here with how females are portrayed, it’s something worth talking about AS a flaw in the writing. Weak female character portrayals are a writing problem, especially as seen over the course of a writer’s work. We can agree — and I do — that there’s value in portraying “boy stories” like this, we can also demand better writing of female characters that STILL SERVE the “honest boy story.”

        • Agreed. Nothing in Smith’s books would lead me to believe that his weak female characters are intentional. I believe that he is absolutely capable of writing fully realized female characters, and that he should. Pointing that out doesn’t and shouldn’t diminish the importance of Smith’s work. But, as you say, even in “boy stories” like Smiths, readers should expect better female characters.

  3. Stacy Dillon says:

    I read this so, so long ago, but it remains a favorite. I was surprised to read it all in one gulp since genre wise, it’s not up my alley. I, too, attributed all of Austin’s Austin-ness to being a teenaged boy. Is that stereotype? Perhaps. But I bought it hook, line and sinker. I did find a few too many conveniences (especially at the end), but I do think it will have a long life on the table. It has to. Because it really stands alone.

  4. I have to admit: I’m not in a rush to read this because of what I’ve heard about how the women are portrayed. Even if it’s being done because it’s “true” to the narrator’s POV, I live in a world that has many such limited, narrow, non dimensional portrayals of women in tv, movies, games, books, that I don’t need to add this to the other stories I encounter out there. The writing may be wonderful, but that worldview isn’t new so it’s not giving me a reason to read it. I also believe that a story can be limited to POV yet still offer full portrayals of others — including women — than what the narrator sees or doesn’t see. Things can be shown so the reader gets it, even if the narrator does not. From the reviews I’ve read, this doesn’t seem to be the case – -where the reader sees more than the narrator.

  5. This is one of my favorite books of the year because I don’t think there’s much out there like it. Recently, though, this has been one of the books that has made me think about myself as a reader. Because, to be honest, on my first read of this book, I didn’t even think about the treatment of women. I was too busy being impressed by the craziness of the rest of the book. Does this make me an poor reader? I don’t know, but it has made me think about this book even more in recent months. I’d have to give it another read to parse out my thoughts and feelings, but this should definitely be in the conversation.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      It’s definitely a book I marveled at and liked more (loved, even, in a slightly baffled way) on the first go — and it’s a book that raises more questions with, I suspect, each read. Is that a good sign? I’m not sure.

  6. Beth Saxton says:

    My post about GJ starts “Austin Szerba is not a hero. Austin Szerba is a selfish little horndog who happens to find himself playing a part in history.” And I really love this book for being unlike everything else. I have been defending the crappy female characters on the grounds of Austin being a horny little scumbag, and while I can see the issue I still do not believe this is a flaw in craft, but rather is more a message related issue which doesn’t ultimately matter for Printz. FWIW I found 100 Sideways Miles repetitive but not in the fun, intentional way of Grasshopper Jungle.

    I think this definitely one of those divisive books where it will ultimately come down to the strength of arguments on each side of the table.

  7. Robin Willis says:

    if I had to make a stab in the dark, this is what I would assume will win, for a lot of reasons. Not least of which because it reminded me so strongly of Going Bovine. But you never know. If I got to pick, I would probably choose Kiersten White’s Illusions of Fate, but that doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar…

  8. I had a lot of personal problems with this one but I think when you frame it as a completely unreliable narration by Austin it does become more interesting. Austin’s continued efforts to talk about Truth and History seem to only suggest that what he is relating falls into neither category. Austin, and to a lesser extent Robby, reminded me so much of Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby as careless and reckless people. (But with a very different perception given that Austin is the narrator of his own story.) There is so much to discuss here that it almost makes up for how very much I did not enjoy it.

  9. I just finished the book, gripped by it in spite of myself. I alternately adored and was irritated by the voice, especially the repetition. I am interested to read that other attributed Austin’s description of events he could not have known about (from the Vice President’s blow job to his great-grandfather’s homosexuality to everything that was going on in Ealing while he was underground) as “making stuff up.” I read it as some kind of ex post facto after-the-end-of-the-world all-knowing perspective. In fact, it reminded me (just a little) of the Death voice in The Book Thief. I thought it would be explained in the end, and was rather massively disappointed that it was not. The epilogue took us only to about 5 years down the line (and how did the bisons come back so quickly?), with Austin still locked inside his own point of view. Nevertheless, I did find it the rangy perspective entertaining and provocative, and if viewed as entirely the invention of a 16-year-old boy, it makes for an even more interesting (but perhaps less believable) character.

Trackbacks

  1. […] a handful of people who have critiqued the sexism in Smith’s novels (check out the comments on this post from Someday My Printz Will Come for a strong debate about the women in GJ, including some more rad […]

  2. […] dipped in and out of reading the Someday My Printz Will Come blog. I had quite a bit to say about Grasshopper Jungle, but beyond that, I’ve been more of a lurker than a commenter. Even though I’ve not […]

Leave a Reply to Emily H. Cancel reply

*