Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review: ELLA MINNOW PEA by Mark Dunn

Rating: 5/5 stars

This epistolary novel is very clever. You only have to read the first page to surmise that much.

On the island of Nollop, a way off the coast of South Carolina, lives a community that has effectively elevated the use of “language to a national art form,” while in turn “relegating modern technology to the status of avoidable nuisance.”

In the town square of Nollopton sits a monument of Nevin Nollop, who is venerated because he is the creator of the sentence "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog." This sentence is on the monument, with each letter hanging on its own plaque. One day a letter plaque falls off, shattering on the ground, and the High Island Council is convinced this is a message from the posthumous Nevin Nollop himself. Some citizens state their belief “that Nollop does indeed speak to us from his place of eternal rest, through the manipulation of the tiles upon his hallowed cenotaph.” The Council’s decision is then to remove the fallen letter from the vocabulary and the printed works in Nollopton. Anyone caught using the excised letter will be publicly and painfully punished.

If this wasn’t interesting enough, once a letter is removed from the vocabulary of Nollopton denizens, it is also removed from the epistles Ella Minnow Pea writes. (As this novel is made up entirely of epistles, that means the individual letters are removed from the actual book itself.)

What really interested me, especially as someone who studied linguistics in school, was that only the use of the letter was prohibited, not its sound. For example, when Z falls off the monument and therefore becomes forbidden, people are not allowed to say “buzz” and “seize,” but to say “bees” or “cease” or “desire” is okay because there’s no Z in those words. English is full of examples like that, where one sound can be represented by more than one letter, or one letter can represent a plethora of sounds. (This is especially true with vowels.) The story touches on this idea later in the book, and it was truly hilarious, to the point of out-loud laughter, to read Ella's correspondences once there were more than ten letters of the alphabet stricken from use.

Throughout the novel, more letter plaques begin to fall in Nollopton, and coincidentally, more letters start disappearing from the book. Writing a story that turns into more of a lipogram with every chapter would have taken a lot of patience and linguistic skill, and author Mark Dunn does an excellent job of this. The book is humorous and such a pleasure to read.

The irony throughout the whole story is that language is placed on a high pedestal in Nollopton, and any reader can tell this from the very beginning as Ella Minnow Pea uses eloquent language that flows easily and sounds very educated. But as each letter is removed from the alphabet, that significantly decreases the number of words able to be used to express oneself and to communicate. At the beginning, it is a matter of simply choosing different words to convey one's desired meaning. But by the end, when so few letters remain, the citizens of Nollopton have no choice but to skip letters and intentionally spell words wrong, simply just to communicate on a basic level (my favourite example: fugitive becomes "phewgitiph"). By trying to elevate language even higher by making it more sophisticated, the High Island Council has turned everybody into inarticulate, taciturn beings who start to develop an aversion to their own language. 

This book is very well thought out and unique in its concept of slowly becoming a lipogram over time. I would never be able to write like this, but the author has constructed his work with painstaking detail, consciously choosing which letter will fall off the monument next so he can still write a cohesive story and have the characters communicate as need be. It’s all very impressive.

Anyone who loves language or wordplays or who has a deep appreciation for all the idiosyncrasies of the English language will enjoy this book. It is lighthearted and funny while also touching on what it's like to be ruled by a totalitarian government, even in a “utopian” society. I wish I had a book like this to read back when I was in high school or even while getting my undergraduate degree. It's so excellent that I know I'll read it many times again in the future.

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