Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters
February 11, 2023 9:58 AM - Subscribe

If "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog" is your kind of language game, then Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea (2001) might be your kind of book. On the small coastal island of Nollop, named for Nevin Nollop, the supposed creator of the pangram* about the dog and the fox, a cenotaph bearing the famous sentence is falling apart, letter by letter. The town council decides that destroying letters is Nollop's divine will, and bans the use of each letter as it falls to the ground--with increasingly draconian punishments for anyone caught reading, writing, or speaking them. Can a a few desperate townspeople save language--and themselves--from these letter-perfect theocrats? * Pangram: "A phrase, sentence, or verse composed of all the letters of the alphabet."

It's a fascinating formal feat of fable: a novel in letters (between island residents, and from the town council) told in an ever-shrinking pool of available words as more and more letters fall from the cenotaph. First, it's Z. No great loss, maybe--but the town council (whose members have a suspicious interest in seizing real estate) impose penalties for its use or possession. An oral reprimand for a first offense. Then flogging or the stocks. Then expulsion, upon pain of death. For a letter! And the adhesive holding the remaining letters is failing!

But young Ella Minnow Pea and her family recognize the insanity for what it is, and decide to fight back. They propose a challenge--a new pangram of 32 letters--and work feverishly to find it, as the island begins to fall apart around them, neighbor against neighbor and vital services collapsing as people leave or are sent away from the island. It's Fahrenheit 451 meets The Phantom Tollbooth with excellent wordplay, both satire and warning. Extremism in defense of the Divine Word is no vice, even, as one character writes, as the council is "preparing for that moment in which language, as it once was, ceases to exist."

* Kirkus: "A mostly lighthearted tweaking of literary sensibilities, playwright Dunn’s first novel gets good mileage from a simple notion: People can carry hero worship way too far....Cleverness is the hook with this little fable—those delighting in wordplay will be duly rewarded by seeing language stretched to its limits."

* Publishers Weekly: "Playwright Dunn tries his hand at fiction in this "progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable," and the result is a novel bursting with creativity, neological mischief and clever manipulation of the English language."
posted by MonkeyToes (1 comment total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I belong to a post-apocalyptic book club and we read this once. The month we were reading it, I managed to finally bring a friend along (Sahararose, who once in a blue moon comments in here). She described it as "the friendliest and most cheerful dystopia I've ever read about".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:44 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]

« Older The Last of Us: Endure and Sur...   |  Book: The Invisible Kingdom... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments