Author: George Saunders
Artist: Lane Smith
Type: Fiction, short story
I read it: September 2016
I received a free copy of this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway.
Compact is what Saunders does best (so far), and a fable for readers of all ages seems up his alley to such a degree it may as well be in his city center. But cities are too large for this story—here we’re concerned with the three-house town of Frip. The only citizen capable of weathering change is a young girl with the allegorial name of Capable. When the gappers (spiky orange ball-beasts) glom on to only her goats and not her neighbors’, she is overwhelmed and underhelped.
The story seems to be both very direct but sneakily subtle. The main points are the values of community, the importance of creativity, and the twin burdens of both asking for and lending a hand. Saunders’ dry humor pervades everything, and he includes plenty of concise jabs at people in general: “Just because a lot of people are saying the same thing loudly over and over, doesn’t mean it’s true.” The stubborn neighbors of Frip are these kinds of people, who would rather hire men to physically move their house away from a problem rather than address the issue head-on.
While the neighbors are able hang on to their good luck they appeal to their good standing in the cosmos. Sid Ronsen says, “I believe that, when my yard suddenly is free of gappers, why, that is because of something good I have done.” He and his wife also thank God “for making them the sort of people they were, the sort of people who had no gappers,” while asking forgiveness for those who are not the right sort of person.
But the concern goes further than a point against the explicitly religious types. Even more modern tribes stubbornly cling to the medieval notion that every end is self-justified: that punishment arrives for those who deserve it, while easy living is a gift that simply lands on the ones who have the correct internal compass adjustments. Just keep your ear open to every muttering of the word “karma” and you know that the idea is alive. That vague wish for divine order-making is going to be a hard gapper to shake.
Ah yes, the illustrations! The story could work okay just as text, but it wouldn’t have nearly as much life to it. Lane Smith of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man fame offers up a textured and exaggerated take on Frip and its residents. He nails the mood and adds a touch of melancholic strangeness, be it the decaying exterior of the houses or a voodoo doll stuck with pins floating at the edge of the frame. These drawings are meant to leave an impact in minds of every age, while the moral quandaries do their own work on a wide array of readers.