Frip Frap

Who is George Saunders and why is he unleashing his inner Gappers?

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, by George Saunders, illustrated by Lane Smith. Villard, $22.

Life isn't fair. While this may be a whiny cliché, the relative anonymity of cult writer George Saunders' (CivilWarLand in Bad Decline) marvelous new novel The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip proves it to be true. A children's fable aimed at adults, infused with Saunders' typically wonky blend of surrealism and political philosophy, and beautifully illustrated by Lane Smith (James and the Giant Peach, The Stinky Cheese Man), Gappers should have hit it big but has instead languished in relative obscurity.

The novel tells the highly original story of a spunky young girl named Capable, who lives in the bizarro town of Frip with her senile, widowed father (who spends his days staring at the sun and commanding it to not set) and a herd of goats. The eccentric residents of Frip are very close to one another for, you see, there are only three homes in all of Frip, and all three of these households make a comfortable living raising goats. There's just one problem: the very persistent Gappers, a herd of small, spiky, orange-colored nerf balls, who just happen to love goats, and who love to show their affection by swarming over said goats and shrieking with ear-shattering joy.

Since being covered by thousands of screaming nerf balls obviously upsets the goats, the residents of Frip must spend each day painstakingly removing the Gappers from their nerve-wracked goats and flinging them back into the ocean, only to find the very persistent nerf balls swarming and shrieking the very next morning.

This is life in Frip, and the endlessly futile labor has become second nature to the hapless Fripians. All is well until the extremely lazy Gappers decide it would be more convenient for them to focus all of their shrieking love on young Capable's goats because she lives closest to the ocean. When forced to deal with the obnoxious orange army all by herself, the Sisyphus-like futility of Gapper-picking eventually gets the best of the spunky Capable, who decides if she can't beat the Gappers, she'll simply avoid them by training herself for a new career devoid of goats.

Her pluck eventually sets off a chaotic chain reaction among her selfish neighbors, who believe bad things happen only to those who truly deserve it, and the tenacious Gappers, who just want something to love. But the aptly named Capable has a few lessons to teach both her nasty neighbors and the freakish Gappers, if only she doesn't lose her mind first.

It's perhaps no real surprise that Gappers has not found the audience it so richly deserves. It is too weird (the Gappers, being both annoying and extremely stupid, collectively agree at one point to switch their love of goats to "wadded up pieces of paper" and "turtles, particularly turtles who were dying, particularly dying turtles who have nonetheless kept a positive attitude"), too politically pointed (the Fripians' belief in a social hierarchy and their conviction that those on the bottom rung have made their own misfortune carries more than a hint of right wing-bashing), too philosophically oriented (traces of Marxism, Objectivism and numerous other isms infuse the surprisingly complex storyline), too difficult to market (is it for kids? for adults? who cares?), and too hard to categorize (it's funny without being snide or ironic, and genuinely moving without being treacly or condescending).

It has also not benefited from the wave of hype afforded, say, that children's series about the boy-wizard-in-training, and it would be a shame for a novel as unique as Gappers to fall between the publishing cracks due to a lack of publicity.

Saunders' two adult short-story collections have likewise not burned up the sales charts, and this is perhaps to their benefit (after all, nothing breeds complacency like mass success). While it's comforting to think of a talented, little-known author as a well-kept secret, it's also more than a little selfish, and it's time for Saunders to reach a wider audience.

2000 was quite a year for the Syracuse University creative writing teacher. In addition to Gappers, his hilarious short-story collection Pastoralia was published earlier in the year to critical acclaim and public indifference. While the book is full of gems (and, to be fair, a couple of duds), the bizarre centerpiece, "Pastoralia," is perhaps one of the most expertly-realized short stories of the year, and should win all kinds of awards (again, if life were fair, which it probably isn't).

Luckily, with The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, the Very Talented Saunders of Syracuse has announced that his will be a career full of enough twists and turns to make it a fascinating ride for adventurous readers.