I read Jordan Ellenberg’s 2003 novel The Grasshopper King and enjoyed it, even though it literally wasn’t the book I thought it was when I first set out with it. In fact, I didn’t even know the author was familiar Ellenberg, who wrote the masterful popular-statistics work How Not to Be Wrong, until I was nearly done. Ebooks can be weird like this.

The Grasshopper King presents a tale of academic follies, framed as a memoir by a retired professor, looking back at his graduate school job of recording a silent and housebound linguist for 16 hours a day. The professors of his university’s department of Gravinics—a preternaturally obscure (and entirely fictional) language known for inspiring self-destructive obsession among its scattering of scholars—hope that their elderly colleague’s obvious catatonia is actually a profoundly deep meditation. They salivate over the surety that he will emerge from it at any moment, burbling with new, invaluable, and deliciously publishable insights. With no other path to a doctorate, the hapless young protagonist relocates his studies onto a card table in the linguist’s basement, swapping out silence-filled tapes as the hours pass, and breaking the monotony with the occasional game of checkers—the sole social stimulus that the immobile scholar responds to. Shenanigans ensue.

I probably started reading this book because one of my ebook apps, knowing that I had read How Not to Be Wrong years ago, suggested it. However, though some mental slip, I thought that I started reading The Grasshopper King after learning about Tithonus, a minor figure of Greek myth cursed to age eternally. In some tellings, the gods take pity on him and transform him into a cicada. I could have sworn that I saw this book listed as a modern retelling of that myth. I mean, grasshoppers are close enough to cicadas, right? With that mistaken impression in mind, the introduction seemed so far afield from ancient legends that I felt sold—wow, how would this charmingly written but entirely mundane setting wind its way into the realm of the fantastic! Well, it didn’t, but I kept reading anyway.

The story is short and swift and engaging, for the small world it moves within, and it plays a very lovely trick. The reader is invited, for much of the story, to side with the absurdly selfish and self-deceptive Gravinics department, treating the possibility of the old linguist’s awakening as a cliffhanger with an inevitable resolution. Gradually, it dawns on the reader that this will never happen, that the linguist’s absent utterance is not merely a macguffin, but entirely irrelevant: something to just let go of entirely. There is no moment when this realization snaps into place, but it grows at-pace with the protagonist’s own growth. I found myself having made this transition from amused anticipation to graceful acceptance slightly before any other characters did, and it felt pretty great.

Of the story’s several themes, the one I like the most: Sometimes, one just has nothing at all left to say.

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