“Pop: An Illustrated Novel,” by Robert Gipe

Robert Gipe

Reviewed by Julia Lindsay

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Pop closes out Robert Gipe’s Appalachian illustrated novel trilogy with a wonderfully queer and apocalyptic coda. It ties up loose ends from the two previous novels that share the same subtitle, Trampoline (2015) and Weedeater (2018), while still acknowledging that life is not neat, that not all loose ends can be tied, that dealing with trauma and fighting for your home—and for marginalized groups near and far—is an ongoing process.

In Trampoline, set in 2004, we first meet teenage, goth-outsider, artist-protagonist Dawn Jewell as she grapples with the trauma caused by her dysfunctional family. Yet we also see her, following the footsteps of her activist Mamaw, begin to engage in the political realm, trying to save the land she loves from Mountain Top Removal. Appalachian landscapes, skyscapes, weather, and flora provide her solace in her darkest moments, and across the three novels, Gipe’s richest imagery and metaphorical language can be found in the characters’ descriptions of them.

Gipe’s signature scraggly graphic novel-style illustrations alone display what Gipe does best—presenting complicated, honest, flawed, yet endearing protagonists whose first-person narratives are expertly rendered in their own idiom.

Pop’s frame narrative is set in 2020 as Dawn, now 38, reflects on 2016, where the bulk of the novel takes place. Dawn drowns herself in junk food and spends all hours of the day on the internet, engendering an apocalypticism that thematically radiates throughout the novel. Capturing the opioid crisis, Weedeater was a fantastic work in epidemic literature, and Pop in turn presents its own epidemic—hate spreading across the internet like cancer, political divides becoming more deeply entrenched, misinformation campaigns and Russian bots beguiling American minds. In contrast to the Dawn of Trampoline whose impromptu outbursts of passion made ripples at the state and national level, Dawn’s response to internet bile is to give up, sending her into a state of depression that is further compounded by her unresolved past trauma. We additionally see this through the first-person chapters belonging to her teenage daughter Nicolette, who struggles with Dawn’s reclusiveness and negligence.

More so than Gipe’s other novels, Pop is a treatise on trauma, storytelling, defeat, and resilience, and Gipe brings sexual trauma to the fore in this final novel. Though his previous novels have always had feminist undertones, gender and sexuality take center stage in Pop. Dawn ends her prologue declaring her pronouns, and the opening scene features Nicolette’s near escape from sexual assault, an experience Dawn will later tell Nicolette they share.

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Pop is refreshingly queer. Nicolette and her two friends Pinky and Marla, who later dub themselves the Feral Girls, are all interested in women, though whether any of them are exclusively lesbian is not established, nor does it need to be. They decide to start a soda company that celebrates Appalachian foodways under the tutelage of Cecelia Peeler, an out and proud lesbian and CEO of her own soda company. These women exude an Appalachian feminism, celebrated in folk tales of witches and the rejection of white patriarchal order they represent. We also meet a character using they/them pronouns as well as a trans character. Gipe is likely not the first to bring trans characters to Appalachia, but he honors queer stories in an honest and moving way.

Trampoline and Weedeater both focus on drug addiction, and we are additionally inundated in those novels with abusive, thieving, or otherwise lawbreaking characters. It should be noted that the first two novels also present us with activist groups and alternative hippie communities, but the picture painted of the people of Canard County is still fairly bleak. We get a slice of that in Pop, too, as Gipe adds destructive, crotch-grabbing Trumpers to the roster along with some other devious men, with one unknown character intentionally starting a major forest fire. So yes, there are characters that are rough, but all three of the novels are honest. These people exist. Appalachia, like the rest of the world, is not perfect.

Though the crotch-grabbers prove irredeemable, Gipe treats the majority of his characters and the region they represent with nuance, acknowledging the many factors that influence people to do terrible things. In one scene, Dawn contemplates what socio-economic factors shape the arsonist and his decision to set a fire that nearly destroys all of Canard:

. . . some asshole on an ATV spilled gas down the trail for a mile, then lit it. Why? Cause he was mean. Cause his momma didn’t remember his birthday. Cause his daddy beat him with a piece of mining belt. Cause he thought he could get paid to help put it out. I don’t know why.

Dawn’s frustration may cause this passage to read as if she does not take these “excuses” seriously, but the rest of the novel, as well as its predecessors, gives these reasons their due, pointing to the cyclical nature of abuse and the role that systemic poverty often plays in violence and drug abuse. Gipe fully engages with humanity, and that’s what protects his characters from being stereotypes.

But Gipe also brightens the narrative in Pop, and it provides the greatest diversity of characters in the trilogy. The strong bonds of friendship and the promise of queer futurity encapsulated by the Feral Girls gives the novel a youthful energy. We additionally meet Sam Haney, an activist Appalachian poet whose creativity is not only reflected in his writing but also in his eccentric, and at times gender-bending, apparel. Gipe brings in a cast of Hollywood outsiders as screenwriter Sandy attempts to create a science fiction film set in Appalachia, a project that actor Tater Cheatum enthusiastically joins in his desire to return to his homeplace.

Hubert, Marla, and Sam, among other Canard characters, end up joining the movie crew on a raucous campout where they start pitching their own corrections to the film’s plot. They bring a larger degree of Appalachian reality to the film, be it in the suggestions that Big Pharma would play a manipulative role in the alien takeover or that the aliens would not have binary gender norms.

What results from this scene is a vibrant and active engagement with storytelling. And that is what Pop’s really all about. As Canard gets more attention—from reality tv shows about ghosts, press on the Feral Girls soda company, press on the film, press from The Sophisticated South (which Hubert later calls The Snooty South) on how to vacation in Canard as the other half does—the novel draws readers to consider how the story of Appalachia is being told. This is perfectly encapsulated in Dawn’s skeptical response to Sandy’s film: ‘‘Why their stories? Why can’t they tell our stories? Why can’t we tell our own stories?”

Gipe’s emphasis on story is not only captured through the participation of our protagonists in the realization of the film. The novel also celebrates traditional Appalachian stories—jack tales, ghost stories, the sung stories in unaccompanied ballads—and modes of expression such as flatfooting. But Pop also seeks to make Appalachian stories more inclusive, and we further ask: how are queer stories, stories of sexual assault survivors, stories of marginalized people being told.

Gipe’s use of fantastic, apocalyptic, gothic, and science fictional elements furthers his emphasis on story, questions of truth, the difficulty of representing trauma and the experience of marginalized people in traditional narrative forms, and how story can serve as a means of healing. The greatest scene in the novel, for instance, features Nicolette on Halloween night falling into an apocalyptic vision accompanied by the ghosts that she’s encountered throughout the narrative. The novel’s ambiguity regarding its ghosts—which Dawn has also encountered—and if we are to take them literally encapsulates Gipe’s vision for representing his characters’ complexities through their own attempts to tell their stories. In an email conversation between us about the fantastic elements of the novel, Gipe wrote this:

sometimes my characters believe what they’re saying and sometimes they don’t. sometimes they’re just trying to make the story better, get a point across. sometimes they do believe that what they say happened really did happen. sometimes they use words to describe things without those words necessarily being what things are. they just are trying to make things interesting for themselves and to the people listening to them. they’re getting at the truth, some truth, most of the time, but sometimes they don’t know what the truth is, and sometimes they can’t handle the truth, or think maybe the people listening can’t handle the truth. it’s all very vexing.

Pop is thus a meditation on the relationship between representation and “reality,” a love letter to storytelling. Its final pages take on a Southern Gothic flavor with the apocalyptic burning of Hubert’s old house. The revelatory moment that follows perfectly encapsulates the thrust of the novel:

It come to me there, sitting on the tailgate of Hubert’s truck before the burnt-down house of the Jewells, that the setting out is why we are given stories in the first place. We can’t hear stories and just lay around the house pondering them. There are still yet giants to be slain…Prisons to be abolished…Sex offenders to be called out. Trans rights to be fought for. Racial justice to be showed up for. Trauma to be named….I wanted to tell the truth and shame the devil.

This moving ending captures the beauty of Gipe’s style, his haunting, enervating, imagery-laden, yet gloriously simple prose making Pop an Appalachian novel of the ages.

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