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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Grasshopper King

Jordan Ellenberg

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To purchase The Grasshopper King

Title: The Grasshopper King
Author: Jordan Ellenberg
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 248 pages
Availability: The Grasshopper King - US
The Grasshopper King - UK
The Grasshopper King - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely written, cleverly done

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Grasshopper King is a three-act novel, told by Samuel Grapearbor. It centers around Chandler City, a town in the middle of pretty much nowhere in the western United States that never quite lived up to its founder's grand hopes and expectations. The street names are still those of great thinkers and figures from the classical world, but even the Temple of Reason, after standing empty for years, only finds use as "a municipal convention center."
       Chandler City is a college town, with Chandler State University (and it's reasonably successful basketball team) pretty much the closest thing to its pride and joy. Academically, it isn't the most impressive of institutions -- except in one field: Gravinics. Gravine -- "a tiny valley-nation in the Soviet Carpathians" -- was pretty much the sleepy sort of specialty one could expect a few professors at Chandler State to specialise in, but when Stanley Higgs, a specialist in Gravine literature, discovers the work of the poet Henderson and then takes a position at Chandler State Gravine studies all of a sudden became quite hot. (The fact that "Henderson was not a great poet, or even a good one" in no way limited his potential as an academic goldmine, of course.)
       Higgs is an odd sort of fellow -- he "never said a word that was off point, and it was unknown for him to commit an error of fact" -- but he mines Henderson for all he's worth and makes an impressive (early) career out of it. He marries the dean's daughter, and Chandler State becomes a centre of Gravine studies.
       The narrator of the book, Samuel Grapearbor, only appears on the scene later. Born in 1967, he missed Higgs' (and Chandler State's) heyday. He grew up in Chandler City but dreams of New York. Unfortunately, his plans of an escape to college there are dashed and he winds up enrolling at Chandler State.
       Samuel is saved from the losers he hangs out with at college when he meets Julia, a girl with a New York state of mind that's wound up in this outback. She becomes his girlfriend, and life begins to look a bit more promising. But Sam also stumbles into a class of Introductory Gravinic and from there into the whole Gravinian scene at CSU.
       Gravine-studies are no longer as popular as they once were: the professor teaching Introductory Gravinic no longer bothers to prepare any lectures for after Thanksgiving, since invariably everyone who signed up for the class has dropped out by then. But Sam gets hooked. The language -- "a perfected vehicle for meaning -- exact meaning" -- grabs him as little else has in his life. It also offers some sort of future, or at least the opportunity for graduate studies, which is preferable to than any of his other options at that point.
       Higgs has meanwhile become a less central figure at the university: he's not said a word for thirteen years. Still, everyone expects him to eventually come out with something brilliant when he finally does speak, and so a graduate student sits with him day after day, recording everything he ... well, doesn't say. Sam gets the job of observer.
       Gravine studies exerts a strange hold on those who succumb to it, and for much of the novel Sam teeters there, tempted yet still believing himself to be beyond its grasp. Sam's (and Julia's) life is strange, but intriguingly so, and they move back and forth between indulging in the absurdity of it (and some of it is hilariously absurd) and looking for some normality.
       Along the way Ellenberg presents Henderson's odd history, Gravinian nuggets of wisdom and folktales (with odd if sensible lessons), Sam and Julia's shifting relationship, and Higgs and his wife. The book meanders nicely about, having fun with academics, small-town dreams, and human relationships. It's not a simple story of love or academia, and doesn't offer neat resolutions. Much of its charm is in Ellenberg's amusing unexpected inventions along the way, and despite all the absurdities it offers remarkably realistic characters, warmly portrayed despite their many failings.
       Nicely presented, by turns wistful and amusing, realistic and absurd, The Grasshopper King is full of small delights. An enjoyable, never predictable romp which doesn't settle for merely going for laughs but actually manages considerably more.

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The Grasshopper King: Reviews: Jordan Ellenberg: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Jordan Ellenberg was born in 1971. he teaches maths at Princeton University.

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© 2003-2021 the complete review

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