The Grasshopper King by Jordan Ellenberg
Have you been on Facebook and gotten a friend request from someone in your past, someone you went to school with, and you look over their profile, and can’t remember a single thing about them? There was nothing memorable about them at all, no quality that was particularly offensive or outstanding. They just kind of existed as a placefiller, a blur in the background of a scene. We used to call them Milpools, people that you would spend time with because there was no one else around, and you would constantly be on the lookout for someone more interesting to spend your time with. (The designation came from that scene in “The Simpsons” when Bart broke his leg, and tried to get Milhouse to sign his cast.)
That’s this book. It has been sitting on my shelf for almost six years, a recommendation from an old co-worker in my earliest incarnation as a bookseller. The author was a friend of hers, and she asked me to read it. I kept picking it up, and putting it back in lieu of other books. Several times, this was on the chopping block for the Cannonball Read, so that I could replace it with something better that came along. But I was determined that, goddammit, I would finally read this book. And I did. And it’s done.
It’s supposed to be a hilarious satire of academia, but really, it’s just a very dry, quietly clever text. The framing of the story is so awkwardly paced, spending inordinate amounts of time on seemingly non-essential moments, and then sprawling forward months, or years, or even decades. It’s the story of a professor of the literature of the lost European country of Gravine, and particularly of their most famous undiscovered poet, Henderson. There was so much more that could have been done with this, but really, Ellenberg seems content to sort of lazily let the story tell itself. It doesn’t help matters when he saddles us with a terrible narrator, one who’s the worst kind of malcontent — the remorseful one. At least with some of Roth’s protagonists, or someone like Ignatius Reilly, they’re unrepentant bastards. Here, the guy sucks, and mopes about being a shit. It’s dreadful.
Thankfully the novel’s short, mostly because it was published by an independent press. I finally finished it, and I will never have to read it again. And since no one has ever heard of — or will hear of — Jordan Ellenberg, you won’t have to read it either. It’ll fill space on random library shelves, forgotten. Where it belongs.
This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Brian’s reviews, check his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.