The Grasshopper King

A novel by Jordan Ellenberg

April 1, 2003 • 6 x 9 • 200 pages • 978-1-56689-139-4

This debut novel is a profoundly absurd campus satire about immortality, obsession, obscurity, and true love.

Chandler State University is the one thing keeping the dusty, Western town of Chandler on the map. Now that its basketball program has fallen apart, CSU’s only claim to fame is its Gravinics Department, dedicated to the study of an obscure European country—its mythology, its extraordinarily difficult language, and especially its bizarre star poet, Henderson.

Having discovered Henderson’s poetry in a trash bin, Stanley Higgs becomes the foremost scholar of the poet’s work, accepts a position at Chandler State University, achieves international academic fame, marries the Dean’s daughter, and abruptly stops talking. With all of academia convinced that Higgs is formulating a great truth, the university employs Orwellian techniques to record Higgs’s every potential utterance and to save its reputation. A feckless Gravinics language student, Samuel Grapearbor, together with his long-suffering girlfriend Julia, is hired to monitor Higgs during the day. Over endless games of checkers and shared sandwiches, a uniquely silent friendship develops. As one man struggles to grow up and the other grows old, the Grasshopper King, in all of his glory, emerges.

In this debut novel about treachery, death, academia, marriage, mythology, history, and truly horrible poetry, Jordan Ellenberg creates a world complete with its own geography, obscene folklore, and absurdly endearing characters—a world where arcane subjects flourish and the smallest swerve from convention can result in immortality.

About the Author

Jordan Ellenberg is the author of The Grasshopper King. He was born in 1971 and grew up in Potomac, Maryland. He recieved his undergraduate and doctorate degrees from Harvard and his masters degree from Johns Hopkins, and is now a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin Madison. His column, Do the Math, appears regularly in Slate, and his articles on mathematical topics have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Seed, Wired, and the Believer.


“Ellenberg’s offbeat premise gives rise to plenty of witty and absurd situations that recall masters like Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut. . . . Campus novels often tend toward the parochial or the arcane, but Ellenberg breathes fresh air into the genre.” Publishers Weekly

“It is Ellenberg’s keen sense of humor and propensity for drawing out the absurdity in collegiate obsessions that takes center stage in this very strange and over-the-top but amusing novel.” Booklist

“Slate.com journalist Ellenberg, a well-known Princeton mathematician, debuts with this tale of a deranged scholar out west who devotes his life to the study of the worst poet in history. . . . Nicely done and genuinely funny.” Kirkus

The Grasshopper King is a traditional comic academic novel, complete with deranged deans and crass coaches and desperate professors trapped in the hinterlands. . . . Light, amusing, and carefully crafted as it is, The Grasshopper King is a cautionary tale about the perils of precision.” Washington Post Book World

“A delightful little novel.” American Book Review

“A zany send-up of campus life.” New York Sun

The Grasshopper King is a breezy discovery for readers. . . . In this madcap novel, the grasshopper-like characters croak, leap, and butt heads—ostensibly over academic fortune, but really in an effort to understand the meaning of love.” Boston Phoenix

The Grasshopper King is engaging. Sam’s self-deprecating narration is witty and satisfyingly melancholic, Ellenberg’s characters genuinely likeable, and there is an undercurrent of conspiracies and machinations that keeps the narrative moving.” Baltimore City Paper

“Ultimately, it seems everyone is touched by this poet, or the professor, or the language becomes miserable and mad . . . and in turn, more honest in describing how woefully funny the world truly is.” City Pages

“The funniest campus novel in ages, and a slippery, serious-minded investigation of what happens when good languages go bad.” Rain Taxi

“Following in the tradition of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Jordan Ellenberg’s The Grasshopper King tells the story of Sam Grapearbor, a sullen ambitious grad student, and Higgs, a professor obsessed with an obscure European poet. . . . Ellenberg really shines when he scrutinizes, with hilarious insight, and the relationship between Grapearbor and the relationship between his girlfriend Julia . . . It’s here, in the imperfect romantic sphere, that Ellenberg shows off his terrific, formidable humor.” Rockland Journal News

“Like reading Murakami, readers will find themselves in a world that is so absurd, yet so palpable. Writing with wit and cleverness, Ellenberg moves deftly among moments of poignancy, satire, and slapstick comedy to make The Grasshopper King an entertaining and worthwhile read.” Manitou Messenger

"The funniest send-up of academia since Jane Smiley’s Moo.” ForeWord magazine

“Zany campus satire about a university with a lame basketball program whose only residual claim to fame is its Gravinics Department, dedicated to the study of an obscure European country’s only notable export—the possibly world-saving poet, Henderson. Speedy, smart, and winsome meditations on immortality and obscurity.” The Believer

The Grasshopper King is clever without pretentiousness, filled with enduring absurdity, bittersweet feelings and quirky characters.” Ripsaw News

The Grasshopper King is a quirky story which is warmly appealing in a rich tapestry of unfolding hidden secrets. . . . Very highly recommended reading and a novel which clearly documents Jordan Ellenberg as an author to keep track of!” Library Bookwatch

The Grasshopper King is an exceptionally silly book. It’s also quite brilliant. These two things might sound mutually exclusive but, in mathematics professor and genius Jordan Ellenberg’s hands, they’re simply delightful.” January Magazine

“Nicely presented, by turns wistful and amusing, realistic and absurd, The Grasshopper King is full of small delights. An enjoyable, never predictable romp which doesn’t quite settle for merely going for laughs but actually manages considerably more.” Complete Review

“From Coffee House Press comes The Grasshopper King, Slate columnist Jordan Ellenberg’s wryly funny Boyle-cun-Borges satire about a crabby, untalented, yet mysteriously important Kafka-like poet and the two academics who wreck their lives by trying to explain him. We laughed more than a few times, and crown King as the best thing we’ve read all month.” The Rake

“Very funny, laugh-out-loud funny at times, and yet still had a very serious point to make as well as an interesting, complex storyline. I love fictional poets, and fictional Eastern European countries, so a fictional Eastern European poet, especially a hilariously grumpy, hostile, and untalented one, was just my cup of tea.” —Caleb Wilson, Davis-Kidd Booksellers

“A brilliant debut: Jordan Ellenberg’s The Grasshopper King is perhaps the funniest and best-written ‘college’ novel I’ve read since Pale Fire—with a considerably more appealing cast of characters than Nabokov’s.” —John Barth

“Jordan Ellenberg’s one of the funniest, flashiest, zaniest, cleverest and also one of the most intelligent and knowledgeable new young writers around. His first novel, The Grasshopper King, sometimes seems to have been written by the Marx Brothers; other times it’s just strong, sharp satire and a good story. If it brings half the laughs and enjoyment to the reader as it did to me, it’ll be pure pleasure.” —Stephen Dixon