Ella Minnow Pea

I read this one a little while back and wanted to think about it before committing to a review. I just couldn’t decide whether it was genius or fundamentally flawed, and will probably have to come to the conclusion that it is both, in an undecidable way.

I’m not even entirely sure what to call it – it’s not an allegory, nor a parable, although it contains elements of both. But it is a piece of fantasy fiction that has a profound political message, as well as an exercise in linguistic experimentation that is as diverting as a conjurer’s trick. The story concerns the fictional island off the coast of America known as Nollop, in honor of its founding father, Nevin Nollop, who was the author of the pangram ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.’ In due deference to his memory, the citizens of Nollop are more linguistically focused than most, which is just as well. When the letters spelling out the famous pangram begin to drop from the commemorative statue in the town square, the governing council take it into their heads to read this as a sign from beyond the grave. And in an act of bizarrely-motivated power-mongering, they ban the locals from using each letter that falls. To begin with, the populace can manage just about all right without ‘z’ and ‘q’, but when they lose ‘d’, relatively early in the narrative, the reader is torn between wonder that language can still continue unabated and amazement that Mark Dunn should have set himself such a challenge with half a book still to go.

This is an epistolary narrative – it has to be as the characters are eventually reduced to writing phonetically to one another – and concerns the fortunes of the eponymous Ella Minnow Pea and her cousin, Tassie. Ella lives with her parents in the town, Tassie with her school-teacher mother in a more distant village, and the letters they write detail the changing circumstances under which they must live, including the growing discontent and eventually, terror that presides over the island. The citizens of Nollop suffer under a three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule. The first use of a forbidden letter merits a warning, the second a public flogging or a stretch in the stocks, and the third is rewarded with expulsion from the community. These draconian measures soon have rebels flaunting their transgressions whilst conflict-avoidant others flee for their lives. The cast of the novel diminish rapidly and the council becomes ever more abusive, stepping in to possess the land and property of those who have left. Only one member of the council remains sane (it would seem) and he agrees to a deal brokered by Ella: Nollop is revered as a God because he created the famous pangram, an act considered to be unique. But if someone else can come up with another pangram, then Nollop loses his spiritual power and the tiles dropping from the statue can no longer be considered supernatural messages. And so the race is on for the remaining inhabitants to create a pangram of no more than 32 letters in length and save their island home.

The most enjoyable aspect of the narrative for me was the incredible linguistic creativity of Mark Dunn who starts off by producing a new Nollopian sort of language, full of little flourishes like ‘a dusktide stroll’, and the sound of bees ‘ringing with its scissoresonance’ and acclaim for Nevin Nollop arising out of ‘multypewritudes’. And then he goes on to lose letters inexorably, and still produce some very fine rants, all the more triumphant in fact for their restricted vocabulary: ‘Can they not see that we see what is happening here?’ Tassie writes to her (now banished) love interest, Nate. ‘Are we to them only silent, witless nonessentials – prostrate irrelevancies to step over in their march to own, to expropriate, to steal everything in sight – even our very tongues!’ In the midst of all this impressive wordplay, there’s a big swipe being taken against censorship, unjust government, religious fundamentalism and the corruption implicit in power. You have to admire an author who can get so much across in a coherent and clever story whilst dropping letters of the alphabet like autumn leaves.

But there are problems with the narrative, too. The restrictions imposed by wordplay mean that Dunn doesn’t have time to develop his character portraits, and so his main characters merge, indistinguishable representatives of the human spirit to fight and withstand oppression. The island of Nollop is a strangely old-fashioned place, charming and quirky and somewhat outside of time; the sweetness of this seemed to me to sit oddly with the dark side of the story, the whipping of children, the sequestration of land, the madness into which some of his characters descend. But I suppose the main uncertainty I felt was over the ambivalence between reality and fantasy that inhabits the narrative. When the first letter falls, the inevitable consequence is the end of all books currently existing on the island – they are all miraculously destroyed. This occurs without significant protest, as does the imposition of the ludicrously severe rule of three errors equaling banishment. On the one hand, these details aren’t important – it’s the more general principle of the matter that lies within Dunn’s sights. But on the other hand, it’s hard to know how to judge a scathing critique of government-gone-mad when events simply wouldn’t play out that way. And I feel that the whole attack on censorship and authority is a little like shooting fish in a barrel: what would really impress me is a novel that showed totalitarianism in a sympathetic light. That would be a challenge. Instead I’m left wondering why the five-person council of Nollop reacted the way it did? And why didn’t the islanders simply stop them? But then I remind myself I shouldn’t ask such questions of an almost-allegory or a quasi-parable. But it’s hard not to.

Overall, though, for wit and inventiveness combined with a provocative story, you have to ultimately admire this novel. It is an original, clever little narrative and one that lingers in the mind long afterwards.

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18 thoughts on “Ella Minnow Pea

  1. I checked this book out of the library earlier in the year and then read it over a rainy Saturday. I found it to be great fun, although I can see what you’re saying. Dunn sets a very clever language challenge for himself, doesn’t he? It was a total change from some of the things I had been reading and I had a great time with it. A delightful diversion for a slow rainy day.

  2. I loved this book it was so much fun. And while it may have the flaws you describe they didn’t bother me. I took the book more as language play in need of a hook to hang its hat so didn’t take anything else very seriously. His book Ibid attempts to tell a story in footnotes and while it begins well it quickly loses steam and isn’t half as fun as this one.

  3. This is fascinating, Litlove, and it makes sense that inherent in the linguistic experiment are limitations of other sorts of development. But a number of the problems you note aren’t related to limitation but to starting points of the conception, ie the nature of the island and the characters’ first reactions. It sounds more cult-like than totalitarian, both in its “innocent” out of time character (reminding me of the polygamous LDS)and fundamentalist responses (3 times and you’re out, public flogging). I wonder if it would have succeeded better had he distinguished between cults and totalitarian regimes. There is a cross-over (Stalin’s cult of personality)but significant differences.

  4. Well, I’m certainly more interested in this book now than I had been. Your analysis sparks comparison with Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Do you know it? Great dystopian novel, and Hoban did practically create a new language, but without dropping any letters.

  5. This sounds fascinating. I love wordplay, and the story interests me as well – control over language has always been a favorite way for a power to control a population, and I’m curious to see for myself how Dunn handles it.

  6. This is a great review! I read Ella Minnow Pea recently and I found some of the same flaws as you, but I agree that it is very creative. You bring up some great questions!

  7. ‘what would really impress me is a novel that showed totalitarianism in a sympathetic light.’ that would be a challenge. What are you thinking, something along the lines of a communist society that is strictly controlled, but doesn’t descend into terror? Or a society that starts with justifiable reasons for such control that then descends into abuse of power? Or something totally different?

    It sounds like what is missing in this novel is an explanation of proper reasoning behind the begining of censorship. That whole supernatural sign thing sounds like an easy get out clause. Societies that work to control their citizens are very rarely coming from a totally irrational basis, but it’s hard for a novelist to explain that societies often have reasons they can justify with contextual logic(or have produced warped logic to deceive their citizens)for the terrible action they take, without seeming to sympathise with the punishments they hand out to people.

  8. I had all the same responses to this book, but I am so fond of wordplay that I decided I loved it. Allegories have these character-development flaws, and leaving out letters is just the kind of thing I’d have done (well, did do) with my friend tim when we were in high school.

  9. I think you described this book better than I did in my review. I think its an immensely clever little book and one which should be wider known. It would be of interest to all sorts of people on the basis of curiosity value alone.

  10. Grad – I had certainly never read anything like it! It’s a very unusual and intriguing little novel and I’m delighted you enjoyed it.

    Stefanie – I’m sure that’s exactly the way to look at it to get the most out of it. And I didn’t realise he had written other things! Sounds definitely like this one is the best, though.

    Lilian – that is a really excellent point. The council behaves far more like a cult than a government, that is exactly true. In that light, I can see what happens much more clearly and would have found that aspect of the story more satisfying.

    ds – you mention one of those books that I have dimly heard of but without any clear idea of concept or plot. Now I can see I shall have to check it out! Thank you very much for the heads up!

    verbivore – oh I would love to know what you make of it! It’s very short, readable in a day or two (with lots of interruptions) easily.

    Ashley – thank you! That is so reassuring to know that my experience of the book wasn’t far off of yours!

    Jodie – great comment, as ever. As a language teacher, I suppose I have spent too much time listening to students doing their social projects and saying ‘Pollution in Strasbourg is a bad thing’. I’m like: yup. And? So I am never quite satisfied by the ‘totalitarianism is a bad thing’ argument. Of course it is! And yet it’s convinced lots of people over time and some small countries find that benign dictatorships are by far and away the best way to function. NOT that I am suggesting this for the UK, only that the beauty of literature is to ask us to think in depth about seemingly self-evident problems. When I am obliged to alter my views after reading a story, or when I suddenly see some issue in a new and surprising light, I really feel that something miraculous has happened, and I like that. And you are quite right – if I’d known why the councillors decided that the falling tiles were a supernatural message (ludicrous interpretation) then I would have bought in a little more. It’s a weakness of mine, I think, to like stories more the more ‘real’ they are. I’m no good generally with satire, for instance, which cartoonises people and situations. Although I also quite see your point that what is sensible for one culture may look like madness for another.

    Baker’s daughter – wow, that link is amazing! How do people think up things like that? If someone started taking my vowels away I would fall apart linguistically! :)

    Jenny – well I’d be delighted to read what you and Tim produced, if it is still available in the archives? I’ve never managed wordplay (like I can’t do crosswords) but am in awe of those who can.

    Tom – it is certainly an intriguing and entertaining fable (ah perhaps that’s the word I should have used to describe it) and well worth anyone’s time!

  11. I would also be interested to read a story about a benign-looking dictatorship. From where i am now – in the military – i can see how people come to embrace a lack of freedom. There’s comfort in the familiar, even if it is oppressive.

  12. I like the idea of Ibid as Stefanie describes it better than the premise of Ella Minnow Pea, but it sounds like it’s not as successful. I do like playful books and this one sounds like fun, but I fear similar things might make me doubt as they made you. I think we have this on our shelves, so I’m glad to know a little more about it!

  13. I’ve looked at this book so many times but haven’t quite convinced myself to pick it up and read it. It sounds very clever, but sometimes I get impatient with books if that’s all there is, though this one sounds like it has more going on even if the story is flawed. Might have to reconsider next time I see it at the library.

  14. I agree with the commenters above in that the flaws — which are very real — didn’t bother me because of the creativity of the word play and the intriguing concepts being explored in such a short book. I really enjoyed it — maybe I should reread it soon! Thanks for this, though. You nail the strengths and weakness of the book so concisely.

  15. Pingback: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn « A Good Stopping Point

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