If you can muddle your way through the first disorienting chapter of "The Grasshopper King" you'll find yourself at the start of a bristly intellectual satire that embraces academia while playfully skewering it. Set on the fictional campus of Chandler State University this story follows the adventures of Sam Grapearbor as he matures from a pimply, defensive undergraduate into a clean-skinned, clear-eyed (dare I say obsessed) scholar of Gravinics.
Sam is one of those bright (but not brilliant) students with ivy-league aspirations who resents being stuck at what he sees as a second-rate state university. He cultivates his outsider status as carefully as a graduate student might cultivate a thesis topic:
"All the marijuana I was smoking made me break out more severely than I ever had in high school. I was always changing majors in response to imagined slights from professors. I wore a long black raincoat wherever I went, inside or outside, winter or spring, and I fancied that the people who whispered at my passing were inquiring of each other what my story might be…"
Fellow undergraduate Julia sees past Sam's prickly exterior. She's an attractive young woman from New York who revels in project-type relationships with men most women wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. Julia goes to work on Sam, partially transforming his misanthropic persona into something clearer and somehow sympathetic. But it's not until Sam stumbles into a class on Introductory Gravinic that big changes take place. Sam is smitten with the study of this arcane but precise language with thousands of ways to translate the sentence "I kicked the dog."
Sam's passion for Gravinic leads to graduate study and a cushy job babysitting the long-silent professor Stanley Higgs. Professor Higgs (who made his name illuminating the work of an obscene Gravinian poet in the 1950's) inexplicably stopped speaking in 1972. Since then, Gravinics scholars worldwide have waited eagerly for their great professor to speak. Now, it's Sam's thankless job to monitor Higgs for new outbursts. Much of the drama in this book revolves around the question "Will he or won't he speak?"
Author Jordan Ellenberg has a knack for the absurd and peppers his book with darkly funny examples of Gravinic folklore, poems and songs. His biggest accomplishment by far, however, is creating a main character as consistently self-centered and misogynistic as Sam Grapearbor and somehow making him sympathetic. I enjoyed reading this book without liking it. Male graduate students hacking away at liberal arts dissertations might really go for it.