The Grasshopper King
As a literary genre, the campus novel can perhaps trace its origins to Voltaire's Candide, which (although not set on a college campus) mercilessly mocked the philosophical obscurantism of its protagonist's tutor, the unfortunate Dr. Pangloss. Since then, a great many campus novels have satirized the intellectual pretensions and ivory tower isolationism associated with institutions of higher learning. Ranging from the genial to the acidic, these satires are probably enjoyed more within the academy, where the members of which see themselves, their colleagues, and their situations all too accurately represented, than by general readers, who most likely think about their college experiences infrequently and with benign nostalgia.
The Grasshopper King, the accomplished first novel by Princeton mathematician, Slate columnist, and Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars graduate Jordan Ellenberg, falls fairly close to the middle of this satirical continuum, deftly alternating bile and affection. Set at Chandler State University, an unexceptional public university in an unnamed Western state, The Grasshopper King posits the existence of a field of study devoted to the language, literature, and folklore of the Gravine, a fabricated Eastern European country. As a language, Gravinic is exact to a degree that nearly defies comprehension: a four-word sentence may, according to Ellenberg, have tens of thousands of English-language equivalents depending on myriad subtleties.
Chandler State owes whatever reputation it has to its fabled Gravinics department, headed by one Professor Higgs, who discovered the Gravine's only national poet, Henderson. That this figure is the worst, most obscure poet ever to have penned a line of verse makes him, in the novel's almost plausible academic reality, all the more worthy of intensive study. The International Henderson Society puzzles over such deathless lines as "The wanton whores of Germany gum up my sight" and "Berlin is dying of syphilis and I am its rotting nose"; and when Higgs suddenly stops speaking and remains silent for three decades, the society's members fund a program to tape-record all of his waking hours in the hope that he will offer even more profound insights into their idol. The novel's protagonist, Sam Grapearbor (an unmotivated student whose intellect is energized by his accidental immersion into Gravinics) is assigned to monitor Higgs, play checkers with him, and translate bizarre Gravinic fairy tales featuring bestiality and cannibalism. If Sam's career defines weirdness, his personal life finds him wrestling with more familiar concerns: love, commitment, self-doubt.
Much of The Grasshopper King is engaging. Sam's self-deprecating narration is witty and satisfyingly melancholic, Ellenberg's characters are genuinely likable, and there is an undercurrent of conspiracies and machinations that keeps the narrative moving forward. Despite an anti-climactic ending, the novel's charm is undeniable. However, while academics and their pedantry are easily (and often deservedly) mocked, campus novelists like Ellenberg too readily forget that knowledge is important, both to individual scholars and to the culture as a whole. In creating a delightfully ridiculous field of study, Ellenberg elides this question, but substituting Russia or Iraq for the Gravine might give this novel a much different tone.