Grasshopper Jungle could make a great movie in the hands of director Edgar Wright (who’s signed on to adapt it). Wright handled material in a similar vein in The World’s End—in this novel, instead of alien robots invading a small town and replacing its inhabitants, it’s giant insectoid supersoldiers. The World’s End features manchildish adult protagonists and their journey toward a truer adulthood (accepting responsibility for what one puts into the world; in this case, the lovely irony being that Simon Pegg’s Gary indirectly causes the world to [redacted for spoilers]) on the heels of a potential apocalypse. The protagonists of Grasshopper Jungle are actual manchildren—adolescent boys—also outrunning an apocalypse and their troubles to find some kind of quasi-adulthood (manhood, rather). Wright also executive-produced Attack the Block, which featured teenagers fighting off invading monsters in an enclosed urban setting. So Grasshopper Jungle seems a fine fit for his cinematic multiverse.
The fact is, I’m going on about Wright’s potential adaptation because it interests me more than the book did. The novel follows two boys—Austin and Robby—in small-town Iowa. Austin and Robby must navigate their adolescent sexual confusion and feelings for each other while investigating the outbreak of a genetically engineered plague. To make things worse, the plague turns infected people into the aforementioned giant bugs, which may spell the end of the world once they start breeding. There’s a girl in the mix too (Shann, Austin’s girlfriend), but Smith mostly leaves her out of the real shenanigans, possibly because he considers himself “ignorant to all things woman and female” (sic).
Smith does an admirable job capturing the voice of a teenager. And his prose is obviously more polished, and his storytelling more robust, than one might expect of an actual adolescent. But Austin’s first-person voice is too indulgent, going over the top in its approximation of teenagers’ thoughts and speech rhythms. It feels like 10 percent of the novel is the word “balls.” The novel is so preoccupied with balls and their sanctity that no fewer than three characters name their gonads. In short, what begins as breezy and amusing quickly becomes tediously juvenile. Austin’s staccato style of narration, which constantly reiterates things that have happened (both in the recent past and across history) and information that we already know as a choral beat, tried my patience at every point.
While the novel’s scenario is rather Spielberg-ian (teens working together to solve a fantastical sci-fi problem in small town America, among absent or neglectful parents and adults), Austin’s too self-aware, too smug in his role as storyteller and self-described historian, to truly immerse the reader in this world. Smith is also too self-aware. From the giant bugs to the 1950s sci-fi inspired, nonsensical tale of their convoluted creation, this is deliberately derivative mythmaking. Smith doesn’t do enough to counter self-awareness with the emotional heft essential for that Spielberg-ian sense of wonder/threat. As a result, everything feels throwaway, a goofy story scribbled in doodles in the margin of a notebook during class.
To give an example of how the novel fails its imaginative potential, we can look at the beginning, where Smith has Austin (who’s curiously omniscient in ways that aren’t convincingly explained) write: “There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.”
This little sales pitch given by Austin is representative of the novel itself. All those “things” are in fact in the novel. But most just pop up as decorations festooning a story that’s not as imaginative as it promises to be. It recycles its own attractions (the giant insects are the monsters, ditto the limbless warriors). The babies with two heads show up inside jars once or twice, as show-and-tell tools for exposition. War? From reading the jacket copy, you’d think Grasshopper Jungle might well be a post-apocalyptic story about the battle against the insect supersoldiers. But the actual “war” happens right at the end, and is quite small in scale despite the wider implications of the plague, softened by Austin’s limited viewpoint. As for love and sex, most stories about human beings tend to touch on that, but fair enough. Smith is driving home the point that even the most outlandish, grand arcs of human history are governed by the mundane whims and carnal impulses of humans, their stupid mistakes and small triumphs, which include sex and pizza. The problem is, Smith is unable to reconcile his lusty observance of mundanity in a teen love triangle with the broader, fantastical history going on around that triangle.
Grasshopper Jungle’s genre trappings and broader plot are glittery wrapping paper around a simple teen dramedy about a boy in love with his gay best friend and his straight girlfriend at the same time (or in love with his best friend but unwilling to give up making out with his super hot girlfriend). The relentlessly whimsical nature of Austin’s narration and the parodic silliness of the sci-fi story keeps the emotionality of that core story from maturing, despite some affecting peaks in the portrayal of Austin and Robby’s friendship. Grasshopper Jungle is most poignant when it’s at its most mundane, such as when Austin pops his mother’s Xanax and spends a night with Robby to get over the ache of his brother’s absence (he’s overseas at war), leading only to more pain.
When the novel plumbs a premise readymade for action and horror, the pacing is all off. The plague takes its time spreading, and the first appearance of the monsters doesn’t happen till half-way through the narrative. Withholding the monster(s) is usually a good idea in such stories. But Smith wastes all that time, failing to build a sense of tension or emotional investment. This is partly due to Smith setting much of the story in an underground bunker called Eden, which strongly resembles Aperture Laboratories from the Portal games. Eden is where McKeon Industries, the people who created the plague and the supersoldiers, came to hide out from the possible apocalypse they unleashed by mistake. It’s a time capsule (vacated in the 1970s), and the prose version of a giant video-game level with clues to uncover plot that Smith doesn’t have to show. Except that we’re not playing the video game—Austin and Robby (and sometimes Shann) are. We’re told the entire story of the plague second-hand through artifacts and clues. Smith even spends chapters having the three watch film reel that literally unspools readymade exposition. In Eden, the novel drags along when it should be going at a clip, because it suddenly decides to turn into a point-and-click exploration video game for its teenage protagonists.
There’s also the calculated irreverence of Austin’s snarky, balls-obsessed narration, which has a sharply distancing effect. Long after the supersoldiers have shown up and been established as essentially indestructible, Austin’s casual, smart-ass storytelling kept me from seeing them as truly menacing. There are moments of sinister poetry when Smith describes the supersoldiers as resembling “clockwork,” or when a boy mistakes them for a “dragon parade” in the distance. But they usually come off as mundane because of Austin’s matter of fact descriptions of their killing sprees, less a credible existential threat (even though they are) than a series of bright video-game bosses that need to be solved (I love video games, but their narrative techniques don’t translate well to prose).
Furthermore, the central characters never seem to be in any danger, because Smith meticulously populates Ealing with a bunch of condescending caricatures of small-town folk to act as bug-fodder. Every time pages are spent sneering at the hilarious idiosyncrasies of his oblivious bug victims, the novel grinds to a halt, because we’re spending precious time with cartoonish characters we know are going to die and have little bearing on the rest of the story. That time could be spent developing underwritten supporting characters like Shann, her stepfather Johnny (who kept a stash of things including a two-headed baby, a penis in a jar, and globes containing glowing ecosystems of mold labeled “plague” for years without realizing there might be something off about them), and Robby’s mother Connie (whose “very large tits and fine golden strands of silky fuzz . . .  between her navel and the waistband on her panties” are so distracting that Austin neglects to tell us much else about her). Austin’s mute dog Ingrid is written with more wit and realism than any of the latter characters.
The sci-fi horror adventure around the teen dramedy might as well be a gigantic wish-fulfillment fantasy that Austin “Porcupine” Szerba constructs to escape his own confusion at being bisexual, his heartbreak at having to choose between his two (conventionally attractive and white, of course) crushes/loves, and his helplessness at the absence of his big brother (further exacerbated by his being bullied). That’s certainly how it plays out, with Austin and Robby turning into casually cool, chain-smoking, badass supersoldier-dispatching, sexually open heroes.
This liberation is only for the boys, though, with Shann a hesitant third wheel whose real worth to Austin and the narrative appears to be her fertile womb and her hot body, complete with “heavy breasts” (as a concession, Smith does have her discover a key plot element, though mostly out of Austin and Robby’s sight). The unfolding of an apocalyptic scenario frees the boys from the social mores that keep them powerless (in relation to adult men), so that they can explore the world and protect women and play with healthy offspring while said women huddle underground “quietly pouting,” worrying about their adventurous male companions and feelings and showering schedules (I kid you not).
This boys’ fantasy reading might be the best way to make sense of the story, in fact, with its fever-dream praying mantis incarnations of sexual anxiety (they live to “eat and fuck”) intermingling with Austin’s history-spanning imaginings of his ancestors’ sperm actively marching into wombs to create healthy Polish boys like him. There’s something intriguing about the way Austin traces his ancestry through the POV of his male ancestors, always, ascribing a bizarre level of agency to their semen while rarely mentioning the very womanly activity of actually giving birth to his predecessors. “Chris Szerba’s semen found its way into Eva Nightingale’s tummy, where it produced a good, cigarette-smoking, Catholic Polish boy named Andrzej,” writes Austin of his great-great-grandfather (I think), while describing his great-great-grandmother’s “breasts like frosted cupcakes and skin the colour of homemade peach ice cream.” There’s a delirious, boyish honesty in Austin’s devotion to masculine horniness, revealing something true yet unsettling underneath all the forced wit.
Austin describes himself and Robby as “us boys,” “kings of the world,” venturing out into danger because they’re “fun and wild.” Meanwhile, he describes “the women” as being like “timid gophers” as they watch the boys leave for adventure. You don’t need to be able to flash your Social Justice Warrior credentials to point out the regressive gender politics here. For all I know, this is me misreading satire, that’s how obvious it is. But what’s most egregious is that Shann and the few other women are barely there as characters (though each is described in terms of their attractiveness to horny teen boy Austin), though to be fair, the male supporting characters are equally shoddy. If Shann were an interesting coward, or a complex but fervent gender traditionalist, I wouldn’t mind that Smith keeps her from being right in the middle of the action. But she’s just a sexy wet blanket whom Smith conspicuously avoids writing by keeping her out of the picture, leaving her to sulk or worry at all times. We don’t need “strong” women characters, as the argument goes. We need complex, real, good, interesting women characters, for the same reason any book needs good characters of any sex, race or gender. It’s more interesting when the humans in a book feel like real people and not boring pawns to a plot or theme.
This novel provides an accurate view of how a teenage boy might view girls and women, unconsciously or not. But Smith does nothing to investigate that, simply presenting this immature sexism as part of a supposedly comforting, escapist fantasy that the novel proposes as a balm against the horrors of the world (absent brothers at war, bullies, sexual bigotry, entire towns dying by mutant Unstoppable Soldier). Women have little to no agency in Austin’s conception of history, being walking wombs and mothering figures to provide succor to the men. Which is why Austin’s trinity is such an ideal—he gets a male romantic partner with whom he has a truly meaningful relationship, one that makes history as it goes along, and also gets to have a female sexual partner to satiate his horniness and provide fresh new boys who will also go on to make history.
Which brings me laboriously back to Wright’s adaptation. Wright’s movies have also suffered a dearth of well-developed women (and here’s the disclaimer that you can love something and still criticize it). But The World’s End had Sam (Rosamund Pike), its own Shann-like character, who wasn’t a wet blanket, at least. She even saves our male heroes from sure death, and rejects the advances of our primary manchild hero Gary. Grasshopper Jungle is a wonderful chance for Wright and company to enrich a story by making its women better characters, and to bring out the poignancy of Austin’s relationships with Robby and Shann without getting mired in regressive sexism. Not to mention tightening the pace. I’m not being facetious when I say that this could be really good. Mr. Smith may have gotten a somewhat negative review from me, but he’s also getting an Edgar Wright movie to (maybe) fix his already well-loved novel, so I can only offer my sincere congratulations.
Indrapramit Das is a writer from Kolkata, India. His fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Clarkesworld, and several year's bests. He is an Octavia E. Butler Scholar, and a grateful graduate of Clarion West 2012 and the University of British Columbia's MFA program. His debut novel The Devourers is forthcoming from Penguin Books India. Follow him @IndrapramitDas.