In a Summer 2016 New Yorker piece, fiction writer George Saunders reported on Trump rallies. After stops in American cities like Fountain Hills, Arizona and Eau Claire and Rothschild, Wisconsin, Saunders wrote that what he found in common in the people he met there was what he had come to think of as "usurpation anxiety syndrome—the feeling that one is, or is about to be, scooped, overrun, or taken advantage of by some Other with questionable intentions."
This is one sort of character that Saunders has written about for more than 20 years—sometimes filleting them with dark absurdist humor, and more recently extending some precarious empathy. These individuals obsess less about keeping up than they do about falling behind. In his recent short story collection, Tenth of December, a father, comparing himself to the richer people in town, writes in his journal "Lord, give us more. Give us enough." In the novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, Saunders writes, "If we have a National Virtue, it is that we are generous. If we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous."
In anticipation of Saunders's first-ever novel, Lincoln in the Bardo—out on February 14—now is a good time to reconsider one of the most haunting stories Saunders ever wrote about the anxiously self-interested. The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, a children's book, is an often-overlooked item in Saunders's catalog. Illustrated by Lane Smith (of The Stinky Cheese Man and The Very True Story of the Three Little Pigs), The Gappers of Frip tells the melancholy story of a seaside village that contains three struggling families: the Romos, the Ronsens, and a little girl and her father.
The village of Frip is plagued by gappers: orange, softball-sized creatures that latch onto goats and screech with glee. But the goats can't make milk when there's too much screeching, so every few hours, the children of Frip pick the gappers off the goats, load them into a bag, and return them to the sea.
Each family has its struggles and peculiarities, but each family gets by. But when the gappers begin to disproportionately target certain goats—leaving others unbothered—the health of the community comes under dangerous strain. Exhausted from trying to save their goats, the little girl goes to her father late in the night and says, "I can't keep up. Our goats are dying."
She sends a letter ("The gappers are too much for me. They're killing our goats. Please help, I beg you.") and visits the Romos and Ronsens. They all indignantly refuse her. "I believe we make our own luck in this world," one of the Ronsens says, "I believe that when my yard suddenly is free of gappers, why, that is because of something good I have done."
This ethos is a close representation of Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism. The Atlas Society, an organization dedicated to promoting objectivist ideas, writes, "Rand dramatized her ideal man, the producer who lives by his own effort and does not give or receive the undeserved." In Rand's mind, people earn what they merit—without exception.
"In college, I was a budding Republican, an Ayn Rand acolyte," Saunders wrote in his piece on Trump supporters. "I'd been a bad student in high school and now, in engineering school, felt (and was) academically outgunned... I conjured up a set of hazy villains, who were, I can see now, externalized manifestations, imaginary versions of those who were leaving me behind; i.e., my better-prepared, more sophisticated fellow-students. They were, yes, smarter and sharper than I was…but I was . . . what was I? Uh, tougher, more resilient, more able to get down and dirty as needed. I distinctly remember the feeling of casting about for some world view in which my shortfall somehow constituted a hidden noble advantage."
Saunders successfully—and almost respectfully—channels his tragically flawed characters because he's been one of them. With dark humor, Saunders knows how to help readers face up to their self-importance, too. "If you want to explore a political idea in the highest possible way," Saunders says in an interview, "you embody it in the personal because that's something that no one can deny." The tragic humor of Saunders's storytelling stems from his ability to present us with characters we recognize in our own selfish and damaged selves.
More recently, Saunders's storytelling has aspired toward further compassion. Saunders says that he's been married for 25 years and has great kids. He says that he's started wondering if there was a way to get that balance more into the stories—"that things could go wrong, but also things could go right, and when they do, the human activity that makes that possible." Almost 20 years ago with a strange children's book, Saunders was already beginning to reveal his profound capacity to do that.
In The Gappers of Frip, the "good luck" and "hard work" of the Romos and the Ronsens runs out. The gappers target the Romos first. "We must all accept our lot in life," Carol Ronsen says to her desperate neighbor. Then the gappers come for the Ronsens. "Accept your lot in life! Ha ha! You snoots. Let's see how you like it," Bea Romo responds.
Meanwhile, the little girl sells her goats and—despite significant discouragement—learns to fish. She catches a lot of them. First she enjoys comparing her great triumph to her neighbors' dark circumstances, but soon she finds "that it was not all that much fun being the sort of person who eats a big dinner in a warm house while others shiver on their roofs in the dark." She tells her father that they'll be having company.
Many great children's books are both dark and charming, and The Gappers of Frip is just that. It asks questions about how people can help each other—or even just face each other—under the threat of poverty, hunger, or being cheated. But like a lot of great children's books—and like Saunders's more recently tender and hopeful fiction—despite the darkness, the characters find a way to endure.
The Gappers of Frip captures much of what's so beautifully heartbreaking about Saunders's fiction. It acknowledges the profound and disappointing ways we have of failing each other—of doing the selfish thing, of letting each other down. It embodies and confronts that impulse, and plays it out to its bleak end. Then it believes maybe we can try again.
Follow Nathan Scott McNamara on Twitter.