George Saunders,
illustrated by Lane Smith,
The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip
(Villard Books, 2000)

George Saunders, American author of two previous collections of off-beat and slipstream short stories (CivilWarLand and Pastoralia), now has taken a somewhat different turn to write a modern fairy tale for "adults and future adults" published in the form of a glossy picture book for children of all ages. The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a book in which the text and the illustrations are equally important and perfectly complementary. Saunder's wry humor, sharp eye, satirical outlook and idiosyncratic voice are almost perfectly matched by artist Lane Smith's (The Stinky Cheese Man and James and the Giant Peach, among others) stylized renderings of the characters and surreal backdrops executed in a skillful, distinctive blend of collage and mixed media -- with eerie Daliesque results.

The bizarre imagery and unconventional storytelling make this parable about selfishness, community and economy the perfect antidote to cloying Disney drivel. The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip offers a most definitely nonsugarcoated glimpse of life.

The story centers around a young girl named Capable who lives in the three-house town of Frip, overlooking the sea. For longer than anyone can remember, our protagonist, her widowed father and her neighbors (the Ronsons and the Romos) have been besieged by gappers -- strange creatures that look sort of like bright orange baseball-sized burrs with multiple eyes (most hilariously depicted in Smith's illistrations). The gappers, for some inexplicable reason, manifest their love for the goats, whose milk is the town's entire economy, by attaching themselves to the hapless animals and then shreiking with joy, which causes the goats to lose sleep and stop making milk. Before long, one of the smarter gappers realizes that Capable's house is closest to the sea in which they dwell when not bothering goats and convinces the rest of its ilk to concentrate their efforts solely there, thus turning Capable's goats into massive, wailing balls of gappers, while the neighbors' herds are left alone.

The Sisyphean task of brushing away the ceaselessly returning gappers takes up all of Capable's time. Her selfish neighbors react to her pleas for help with the peculiar logic of a trademark Saunders response: "Not that we're saying we're better than you, necessarily, its just that since gappers are bad, and since you and you alone have them, it only stands to reason that you are not, perhaps, quite as good as us. Not that we hate you! We don't. We even sort of like you." Of course it's only a matter of time and Capable's cleverness that gradually changes everybody's luck, but things do conclude as happily as is possible in the morally challenged, circumscribed world of Frip, for Saunders is much too savvy to bring this fable to a preachy, edifying ending.

The collaboration between Saunders and and Smith in The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is inspired, with Saunders' writing portraying the spooky and the disturbing as something to embrace rather than fear, his dialogue featuring deadpan repetitions and platitudinous self-excuses that are uncannily amusing. Smith adds witty touches throughout, his creepy, beautiful ilustrations being the ideal complement to the author's themes of melancholy and hope, ensuring that adults and youngsters alike will find the pictures appealing and intriguing. As a refreshing change from the usual cloying sentimentality of most books aimed at children, Saunders' and Smith's effort gives kids a taste of the dark humor that awaits them in the real world and offers adults an entertaining mirror in which to assess their own jaded cynicism.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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