A curmudgeon becomes tolerable when he is so loathsome as to actually be amusing. Odds are, though, you'll have to endure much of him being a pain in the ass before arriving at the payoff. In the case of Jordan Ellenberg's The Grasshopper King, the pain threshold is about 41 pages. Until then, expect to wade through the peculiar, but ultimately boring, college existence of Chandler State. One tepid plot twist involves a woman dropping out of Vassar to hang out around this fictitious, backwater campus; another the lectures on near-dead languages taught by a batty professor.
After we've gotten a bellyful of the trivial, day-to-day stuff of mid-20th-century academia--kids cutting classes, professors vying for tenure and attentive students (oh boy)--our winningly unlikable narrator, Samuel Grapearbor, steps out from behind the curtain of anonymity. And thus begins a philosophical intrigue that's both mean-spirited and quite funny. Young Grapearbor is a familiar enough type: an aimless undergrad with a trench coat and bad skin. Yet, surprising everyone, Grapearbor soon finds a girlfriend (woah!) and some direction (woaaah!). The real plot saver is that he becomes obsessed with Gravinic--an almost forgotten language from a country absorbed by the U.S.S.R. And thus begins his noble decline.
Gravinic speakers are very precise and have about a million ways to describe just about anything. Yet what do they find worthy of description? Translations of phrases such as "I kicked the dog" (to say this could take forever, once you consider how the kick is delivered, etc.). They also enjoy fairy tales about horrible families who take advantage of wandering fools by marrying them to farm animals, and then watch said fool couple with the animal/spouse, and then later feed the groom his spouse, which has been slaughtered, cooked, and set on the table to eat. The preeminent Gravinic scholar is a Professor Higgs, who discovered the language through an early 20th-century crank poet, and by chapter two of The Grasshopper King has gone loopy and hasn't spoken a word for 13 years. (On the subject of oddball professors, first-time novelist Ellenberg is himself a young mathematician at Princeton University.) Ultimately, it seems everyone 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.