- Painting Bison on Cave Walls:Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle and the Potential of Unnatural Narratology
Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle begins with a note to the reader that announces its status as metafiction:
Ealing, Iowa, is a fictional town. None of the characters and places in this book actually exist. Any similarities between events and characters to actual history only occur in the true portions of this book, which aren't many.
These sentences, as Patricia Head writes of metafiction, offer a "reflect[ion] on the nature of storymaking itself" (29) by drawing attention to the literary devices of setting and character deployed in the rendering of the novel's story. Indeed, throughout Smith's novel—the tale of the inadvertent release of McKeon Industries Plague Strain 412E and the subsequent transformation of a key group of humans into "unstoppable soldiers … resembling six-foot-tall praying mantises with lightning-fast arms … studded with rows and rows of needle-sharp, barbed teeth" who feast on humans, breed, and release millions of their murderous spawn into the world (239)—Austin, the novel's sixteen-year-old first-person narrator, "reflects on the nature" of the story—or, in his terms, the "history"—he is creating, describing when and where he adds to this story and lingering on his method of historiography. The final sentence of the novel's introductory statement, however, challenges the assertion of fictionality made in the first two sentences and suggested throughout the novel by stating that the text includes "true portions" that bear similarity to "actual history," and implying that Grasshopper Jungle includes factual narrative. That this sentence ends by noting that there "aren't many" "true portions" in the novel complicates its initial assertion of referentiality and intimates the presence of an unreliable narrator that confounds an interpretation of the novel as metafiction. [End Page 17]
Historically, metafiction and unreliable narration have been seen as, if not incompatible, then representative of different literary and interpretive interests. In short, metafiction threatens the realist presumption against which narrative fallibility is measured, thus, use of this discourse makes narrator reliability a moot point. As literary devices, metafiction and unreliable narration make differing claims about reality and the ability of fiction to represent or construct it. Because a narrator's unreliability is only discernable in comparison to an infallible source, narrative reliability implies the existence of an objective or commonly understood reality within or outside the text and represented by a "true story" the unreliable narrator fails to relate. Metafiction, in comparison, makes no such claims and, Patricia Waugh writes, as it draws attention to its own constructed nature, metafiction suggests that "[t]he materialist, positivist and empiricist world-view on which realistic fiction is premised no longer exists" (7). Although both unreliable narration and metafiction are concerned with what Waugh calls "the relationship between the world of the fiction and the world outside the fiction" (3, italics in original), unreliable narration depends on a relationship between the two worlds that metafiction calls into question.
To complicate matters, Grasshopper Jungle's first-person narrative is omniscient and this omniscience brings the interpretive dilemma of the novel's question of (un)reliability or metafictionality to the fore, challenging its readers to assign what Maria Nikolajeva ("Beyond") might call an "ontological status" to its narrator-protagonist and analyze the narrative in the terms this status suggests about the text. If we view Austin through what Nikolajeva has termed a "mimetic lens" (in which "we view characters as real people and ascribe them a background and psychological traits that may not have any support in the text" ["Beyond" 8]), his humanly impossible omniscience is evidence of his unreliability; if we view Austin through what Nikolajeva has called a "semiotic lens" (in which we "treat … characters, as all other textual elements, merely as a number of words, without any substance" ["Beyond" 8]), his omniscience underscores the constructed and synthetic nature of his characterization and supports a reading of the text as metafiction. Thus, a text like this one, as Bruno Zerweck argues of similarly challenging works, "can be read in two mutually exclusive ways" (164), each of which suggests a different...