Wednesday, January 19, 2011

ELLA MINNOW PEA, by Mark Dunn

You get these things, I think of them as “trick novels”, where everything is based around a clever premise. The story is moving backwards, or the reader is the protagonist, or it’s a novel about writing the novel that is the novel, or whatever. I don’t have anything against these books, per se (I was planning to write one for a while there), I just don’t read them.

So it’s thanks to the White Queen that I ended up reading one last week – around four months after she lent it to me.

On their own, the cover & title wouldn't have grabbed me

Ella Minnow Pea takes place on an island where language is of paramount importance, it’s almost a religion. They have a statue in the town square commemorating one of their citizens, a guy named Nevin Nollop who came up with the pangram “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”. There is no telephone system on the island, so everyone communicates via letters, & everyone writes with the corny, zesty vocabulary of a cartoon professor from a kid’s TV show. Anyway the letter tiles start falling off the memorial, and each time they do the Elders decide this means Nollop is speaking from beyond the grave, telling them to stop using that particular letter. So the letter becomes illegal, its use is strictly punished by the town’s fascist police force (they have a fascist police force, despite being a nation of cartoon professor characters), & as the story is told in letters (that’s letters as in missives) the novel stops incorporating the prohibited letters (as in graphemes) in its text. So first you’re getting a novel without “Z”, then “Q” goes, then “V”, etc., etc. Life becomes very hard for people on the island, various rebellions are formed & subsequently crushed, & it eventually becomes clear that the only way to restore order is for someone to formulate a shorter pangram than “the quick brown fox etc etc”, to dispel the prevailing notion that Nollop is some kind of deity. But there’s a deadline, arbitrarily, & so it’s a race against time.

This maybe sounds a little contrived. Like the author decided to write a novel with a diminishing selection of letters, & came up with the plot just to suit the form. & it is like that. It is exactly like that. That, I would venture, is what happened here. Characters have certain names, bizarre habits & occupations which at first seem like eccentric little quirks, but inevitably turn out to have been reverse engineered so they can be discussed without certain letters. For instance the main character is named Ella Minnow Pea. Hmm.

Suspension of disbelief is an issue here. But the second half of the novel – against all odds, since as I say it reads a bit like a zany kid’s educational programme – shifts into a sort of dark, paranoid, dystopian vibe. Characters get lashed, pilloried, exiled. A kindly old professor gets shot in the head evading arrest. A woman goes mad & kills herself in quite a strange way. Etc* & it’s all being told with a diminishing alphabet – this turns out to be a very effective technique for representing totalitarian control. The letter-writers at first tiptoe around the missing letters, then later run into serious problems expressing themselves, finally degenerating into crude phonetics, angry or tragic or hopeful messages written in a sort of grunt-language. It’s kind of... moving to see these people struggling to remain themselves and to connect with each other, with the heavy burden that’s been placed on their communications.

& so, strangely, this one turned out to be quite a good book. It’s nothing earth shattering, but it is quite short, & would take most people less than 3-4 hours to read. It’s a rewarding way to spend less than 3-4 hours of your time.

Today's victim is being threatened by the letter... M

* The shift from "G" rated cutsiness into "PG-13" brutality is a little jarring. I'm not entirely clear on whether Mark Dunn is doing this deliberately - i.e. making the contrast as sharp as possible to illustrate the evils of fascism - or whether he just got carried away. In any event, it's weird & kind of icky, like watching a smurf getting its nose broken. Because of the linguistic constraints the novel places on itself, it's actually quite hard to get a sense of "Mark Dunn the Novelist". We get "Mark Dunn the Wordsmith" instead.

Side note: I often find that my mind half-adapts itself to the reality of whatever book I’m reading (I think the worst case of this syndrome I ever had was when reading The Dancers at the End of Time – I experienced something like a drug come down every time I stopped reading – it seriously bugged me that I wasn’t hooked up to enormous engines which were gratifying my every wish).

Reading Ella Minnow Pea sort of messes with your head, because you’re trying to keep track of what letters are permissible, what things can and cannot be said (characters slip up at times and are arrested for the content of their letters), & then when you put the book down and try writing an email, or ordering a drink from a bar, you find yourself unconsciously tiptoeing around certain letters, words & phrases. Or else you do the reverse & start mentally formulating pangrams. If nothing else, this book will make you temporarily very aware of the language you use.

3 comments:

  1. Starting a sentence with an ampersand drives me nuts. Every time you do it an internal organ shrivels within me, gasps urgently, and, with one final, desperate wheeze, dies.

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  2. They make me so happy though.

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  3. Ingesting a stiff cocktail of barbiturates, opoids and amphetamines makes me so happy, Chris, but I ensure I only do it during work hours, as society deems appropriate. There's a time and place for our happy-making activities, and the START OF A SENTENCE is not that time, nor that place.

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