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.