Posted by: holdenlee | March 23, 2015

The Grasshopper King, Jordan Ellenberg

(Goodreads, detailed notes)

Few books capture academia in a way that feels true – it’s easy to caricature professors into one or the other end of the spectrum: mad scientists or senile old men. The great majority of people in academia spend much of their lives adding to a small branch of knowledge. It’s hard to make them fit into any kind of dramatic story, so it’s natural to either exaggerate their contribution or make them bemoan their dusty lives wasting way.

The Grasshopper King does none of these things. It is a satire, but one that really understands academia – its author, after all, is the well-known mathematician Jordan Ellenberg. Maybe one way to describe it is as a coming-of-age in the academic world. The story takes place at Chandler State University, a no-name university that is catapulted to fame by a professor in an obscure department.

1 On academia, or deep thought in general


The academic subject here in question is Gravinic, a fictional Eastern European language.

As the language is fictional, the reader has no preconceptions going in and Ellenberg has great freedom in populating our impressions of Gravinic.

Gravinic has all the qualities that any quintessential abstruse academic subject should have. It’s absurdly complicated, with hundreds of verb tenses that takes years to master. It has a kind of magic that appeals to a certain mind – it gave Coach Mahemeny’s basketball players, normally apathetic to academics, some kind of spiritual awakening; it fills the narrator’s (Sam’s) life with purpose. To those who hear its call, it promises a deeper truth; it turns minds to contemplation and terseness, sets them off on the long road into academia.

Sam’s evolution, part 1

Sam Grapearbor falls under the spell of Gravinic, after he goes to the wrong class by mistake, and stays after all the other students have dropped the class. Professor McTaggert gives him the assignment of writing out all the translations for “I kicked your dog,” which takes months to complete. (There are thousands of ways to translate it into Gravinic depending on verb tense, type of kick, habituality, ownership, etc.)

“Gravinic was a perfected vehicle for meaning—exact meaning. All the shadings I’d lived by, all the little contradictions, were exposed in its vocabulary, drawn apart and fixed in place like moths on pins… When I spoke English it seemed impossible to get my nuances across, and so I spoke less.”

(Mathematical, eh?)

Sam falls into a strict routine: he gets egg salad sandwich for dinner every night, and alternates between writing 12 possible translations on a piece of paper and eating a bite of sandwich, until midnight.

“Those dog-kicking weeks were the happiest time I have known.”

Nothing to say

Stanley Higgs, although he went to brighter places for graduate school, returns to his alma mater, Chandler State, as a professor of Gravinic. In particular, he studies the life and work of the enigmatic Henderson, the one major Gravinic poet. As the most well-regarded scholar in the field he brings a burst of optimism to Chandler.

Higgs works on assembling a chronology of Henderson; he writes letters to everyone who might have gotten in contact with him to get more information; Henderson scholars start to pop up everywhere, hoping to jump on the bandwagon.

He himself is deaf to the commotion his arrival causes, and doesn’t care for the matters of the university outside his work. He has a famous habit of playing checkers with students outdoors, sometimes playing three people blindholded at once. When asked how, he replies, “It’s simply a matter of thoroughness. One has to consider every possible move and eliminate those that lead to defeat. That’s all.”

Soon, however, Higgs and the Gravinic department enter a period of decline. Students’ interest in Gravinic fades; Higgs receives a reply from Henderson himself – a single word, “bastard” in Gravinic; his teaching deteriorates; at a Henderson conference he only speaks a single sentence. Then he stops speaking altogether, and that is when the story really starts.

When Higgs goes silent, everyone expects that the next word he speaks will be a great revelation. The Henderson society, powerful and beyond Higgs’ control, sends its minions (paid students) to accompany Higgs in his house with a tape recorder every day. To them and the world at large, the “current silence promised a breakthrough on a previously unimagined scale, a Grand Unified Theory of Henderson.”

Sam Grapearbor is thrust into this job.

Terseness, and a few parables

Why the silence? “I suppose he’ll talk again when he has something to talk about,” his wife Ellen says in a no-nonsense fashion.

In the world of the story, terseness is a virtue. Everyone clamors for a fountain of knowledge, but there is none. Everyone wants to hear what Higgs will say, but if he bothers to think about them, it must seem a type of heresy – they’re more eager to hear him than to learn. A world with so much noise sets a high bar for a statement to be worth saying. Higgs’ silence seems to say: when you go deep into knowledge, you realize how little you know, how uncommunicable are the things you’re trying to discover, how little you have to say. Wisdom is a kind of unknowing.

The story is punctuated by little parables, for example, the Gravinic story of Little Bug (and his four wives). They’re the kind of story that one can puzzle over and come up with various interpretations, the kind of story that doesn’t deliver a message, but makes one mull. They fit the novel. The story ends: “where the bones fell, another country sprang up, in which the people’s speech was confounded with lies and half-truths.”

The bulk of the novel, then is a kind of waiting – Sam participating in Higgs’s daily rituals, which involve such things as playing checkers with Higgs:

“When I recall those afternoons of checkers it’s this moment that comes to mind: the caesura between consideration and play, the respite of Ellen’s knitting needles, the slow graduation of the noise in Higgs’s throat, and at the end of it the punctuation of the checkers clicking against the board, three times, as Julia and Higgs carried out their predetermined moves, three full stops, or–I should say–an ellipsis.”

And what about academia?

When Sam reveals that Higgs has spoken a word, a conference is thrown in his honor.

When asked to give an address, he finds himself much like in the position of Higgs, with little to say – because Higgs hadn’t actually said anything; it was just a plot he hatched with Julia and Charlie to save Higgs. A reporter tries to make the conference a big deal; to Sam, the dramatization seems inauthentic.

During his address he instead he tells the story of two horses arguing whether life is “all-or-nothing,” or “peace and quiet.” A dog says, “you are being put down in the morning for glue.” “My God! A talking dog!” one horse says. “I think we can agree that all of us here tonight are talking dogs,” Sam concludes. Another one of those parables.

When he meets with the scholars, he finds that

Each professor had his own theory about Henderson, which he held tight to his chest like a helpless chick, guarding it from the cruelties of the world and enveloping it in warm assurances, feeding it the occasional regurgitated worm of his researches. And each was certain that from my “recollections” he could glean some once-and-for-all advantage for his cherished hypothesis; he chick would fledge, would own the air, while the others grew skinny, pinkened, and finally died open-beaked, half-buried in the bottom of the nest.

His observation is by nature nonjudgmental, because by this point, he finds himself already belonging to the academic world. The people nurse their little “chicks” of ideas with desperation, which sounds absurd from the outside – but there’s something to that devotion, and moreover that something seems essential to belonging to the academic world.

The book is about Sam growing up from student to academic, and it makes the quirky quietness seem reasoned – the whole process turns people in a certain direction. Not that it’s good or bad – it’s just a thing that happens.

And then there’s this:

“Behind each rectangle of light there was a chemist, a dramatist, a creative writer, an anthropologist, or something else. Our Babel, this welter of disciplines, our own bituminous tower. Something had gone wrong; the confounding of the tongues had proceeded on schedule but the victims had failed to scatter, as intended, across the span of the earth.”

2 Relationships

The book certainly breaks the genre of “supergenius finds love to get him through hard times.” For (a) Sam/Stanley aren’t supergeniuses, they’re just academics, (b) love didn’t work out in the end for either of them.

Julie and Sam

  1. Sam sits by the decrepit statue of “Tip” Chandler every day – not because it is a good spot, but rather because he finds its ludicrousness symbolic. One day he finds it occupied by perky, optimistic Julia, who is curious about what his “game” is, why he is so “disaffected” all the time; she had made up her mind to rescue him. Julia is a vibrant, headstrong character:

    “She was eternally trying to get people to read difficult novels. Her favorite movies… were those in which some former sports hero, alternately crippled, ruined by drink, or betrayed, battles back into condition, steps back alternately onto the field, the ring, the court, the alley, or the rink, and against colossal odds beats the unsympathetically portrayed opponent, thus regaining the love of, alternately, a woman grown cynical or a towheaded, neotenic orphan. At the climactic moments of these movies I would lean over to Julia and whisper cruel insinuations… she ignored this, as she did all my ugliness.”

    Their relationship develops, props up his life; she is there as he works on his translations, each in their studies.

  2. When his life seems to have stalled – stuck in the daily routine with Higgs – Sam has doubts about his love for Julia. Others ask whether they are engaged. And he wonders:

    “Were we in the planning stages? Were we… ‘engaged to be engaged’?”

    “But love? I was hampered here by my refusal to admit I didn’t know what it was, or whether it was in my repertoire. Those men of my acquaintance who ‘didn’t know if they could love’ were, without exception, the basest seducers of the campus, and their prey, the callowest, the weakest-willed of girls. That wasn’t Julia; that wasn’t me… something in the sentimental movies was missing for me; this visible selflessness the heroes experienced, as they emptied themselves into their romantic trials.”

  3. Sam has grown after the experience with Higgs; in fact, with a letter that came back to Higgs, he can interpret a poem and finish his degree. But for Julia it is the end of a period of her life. Their minds have diverged, and they break up. Julia wants to move back to New York.

    “What brought this on?… There has to be something.”
    “No. There doesn’t. There doesn’t have to be anything.”
    “I don’t want to live — [gestures] in this, and be Mrs. Assistant Professor of Gravinic Language and Literature.”

    Why did Sam and Julia’s relationship not work out? Sam has a kind of eternal patience from his work, and she doesn’t? But the flipside to patience is that it can also be construed with inertia in raising one out of one’s position. When Sam got into Gravinic, Julia had declared declared she would study it too, but then dropped it. Somehow, they were just incompatible. What vs. what? Endless patience/quietness/living in his head/need to be alone? Passionate/wanting something different/wanting the delights of family/needing an acknowledgement? (Julia gets married to a Simeon who advertised in the paper “(expectations resonable, no games)”.)
    Sam explains, “Another person, however closely aligned to my own temperament, would inevitably have introduced perturbations into my routine – noise, one could say, in the signal – and I had begun to value quiet above all else.” 

Ellen and Stanley

Julia and Sam’s relationship parallels Ellen and Stanley’s. She is an independent soul who doesn’t care for boring things (and bangs pots and pans to protest against the recording of Higgs). She had first met Higgs at a party to celebrate the basketball team’s victory and found his focus and honesty a bit unnerving:

E: “I hate these things.” S: “‘Hate’ is a strong word…. are you willing to say you want this party destroyed?”

E: “Do you like it here?” S: “Yes, I like it here a great deal.” E: “You must be nuts.”

Ellen talks to Julia and Sam about their relationship, and a little about her own. Ellen says disapprovingly that “the last one [who had the job of recording Higgs] didn’t have a girl… Every man needs a woman by his side. That’s the truth… When I think of what would have happened to Stanley without me…” When she notices a survey from the magazine that Julia brought, “Is your marriage in a rut?” she says yes to everything, and then tries to defend her own marriage, “What about domestic tranquility?” The stuffiness of Ellen and Higgs’s marriage seems to rub off on Julia and Sam’s, and their own relationship stalls during the endless waiting.

Sam and Higgs

Mentor and student? But Higgs never says anything except one sentence at the end, and they just play checkers.

Sam finds a purpose in saving Higgs. Maybe he wouldn’t ever understand why Higgs decided to go silent, but he did know that he had to stop the Henderson society. They were going to take custody of Higgs – having doctored photos to suggest that Ellen and Sam had conspired to keep Higgs silent so they could have an affair.

“Once we’d [he and Julia] laughed about suicide, remember? And not just that, but floods and earthquakes, girls down wells, the situation in the Middle East, widow-burnings and ritual mutilation, the way a teenager might shoot you for a parking spot. We’d sent half the world down to Davy Jones. There wasn’t anything awful enough to sober us up–until now.”

He delivers a speech to Higgs about how he understands his academic dilemma. And then:

“I realized instantly that everything I had said… was… an embarrassing, pretentious lie. The academic issues – what did I care? All that mattered was rescuing Higgs.”

In their final game of checkers, Higgs finally breaks his silence: “My advice is to be careful of hasty marriage. My game.” He regrets his own marriage.

Some kind of conclusion?

The novel isn’t saying anything universal about love, but hypothesizing the existence of a certain kind of person, for which the societal ideas of love and marriage are empty promises. He seeks out – or is found by – her to whom the urge to find excitement, or bask in the romanticism of the daily, is an essential part of her being, and they gravitate towards each other. But somehow they don’t fit together; what’s meaningful to her he finds mere trivialities; what he thinks about doesn’t interest her – and the right thing for him to do is to just keep following the thought in his head. Somehow, embracing his chosen path, letting go of a promise of love that doesn’t work, is a part of growing up. He is antithetical not to love – because isn’t love for one’s work love as well? and he does love her, in a way, and they’ve changed each other – but rather the ties of relationships that society expects. Or perhaps there is just something profoundly difficult to reconcile between one’s academic work and connecting with other people.

Ellen says that “every man needs a woman,” but this is bad advice for such people. People who are such that having another person nearby all the time would be unbearable noise. There is a loneliness being single, but the cost to marriage may be larger.

3 Some personal notes

To me, it’s a story about patience. It’s a very fitting book for me to read now, in the first year of a Ph.D – It’s hard not to be a little restless sometimes. Someone recently pointed me to Ph.D. school in pictures, which captures it quite well.

I have to make an admission: I’ve had this fear for a while that I would never get married. And somehow, after reading this book I no longer had that fear. Not that I wouldn’t like to – but that it just wasn’t such a big deal.


  1. An interview with Jordan Ellenberg:

  2. […] of a small genre of books which have a powerful effect on me: The Slow Regard of Silent Things, The Grasshopper King, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. These books […]

  3. […] my travels I ran across a 2015 blog post by one Holden Lee, a PhD student in mathematics at Princeton on his way to an academic career; his […]

  4. The description of “inner life” here ( reminded me of this book & post.

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