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Ella Minnow Pea (Or, the Advantages of Missing a Bus) October 4, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Flights of Fancy, Language, Philosophy, Saving the World, Serendipity, Through the Looking Glass, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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…A cross between Survivor, 1984 and your favorite childhood alphabet book…

While doing research for my posts two weeks ago on lipograms and univocalic writing, I ran across a reference to a novel (“progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable”) entitled Ella Minnow Pea. According to Wikipedia,

the plot of the story deals with a small country which begins to outlaw the use of various letters, and as each letter is outlawed within the story, it is (for the most part) no longer used in the text of the novel.

I thought this was a rather neat idea, but promptly closed the computer window and forgot about it.

Fast-forward to Friday, October 1…

I was on a bus headed downtown, from where I needed to transfer to a second bus that would take me to the private school where I teach several afternoons a week. There were only two buses that would get me there on time, and the first was due at the connection point any minute.

Unfortunately, due to construction my nearest stop had been shifted. Then shifted back beyond the cross-street, at which (due to a red light) we had halted. And, even though my transfer point was right on the corner, no amount of pleading on my part would persuade the driver to let me out on the corner while the traffic was stationary instead of transporting me most of a block ahead, from which point I would have to backtrack.

I was in the process of said backtracking when – sure enough – I saw my first bus slide elusively by. Fortunately there was still another one I could catch, so I settled down on the corner to wait. On that particular corner there was a bookstore which often had a table of reduced-price books outside. Of course I went over to look while I waited for my bus, and there on the table was a slightly damaged copy of…

You guessed it. Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn.

Of course I ran in and bought it, then read it while I travelled back and forth between students’ houses and waited for my soccer to begin that night. I finished it on the last bus home.

*********

Ella Minnow Pea is set on the (fictional) island of Nollop, named after the (supposed) inventor of the famous pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” – words immortalized on the cenotaph Nollop’s citizens have erected in his honor. Yet one day a tile containing the letter Z falls from the cenotaph, a sign interpreted – by the power-hungry High Council – as a sign from Nollop himself from beyond the grave: none of the island’s citizens are ever to speak or write this letter again, on pain of banishment or death. And then another letter falls, and another…

As the book is in the form of letters between the book’s central characters, the banishment of each letter from Nollop ensures its banishment from Mark Dunn’s novel as well. Hence the book seems at first like a clever language game, and on some level it is. But there are distinctly dark, indeed Orwellian, undertones as well. As the tiles continue to inexorably fall from the cenotaph, available vocabulary becomes ever more restricted and the characters’ letters to one other ever shorter and harder to read. It is as though one sees language itself falling away, dissolving, meaning crumbling before one’s eyes, as in Orwell’s Newspeak.

Its content as well as its form is Orwellian. The basic premise is, at first glance, ridiculous, even comic. Yet this very randomness with which the tiles fall, and the arbitrary way in which Ella’s friends and relatives are punished for their accidental slips, give the book at times a nightmarish sense. Such an outlandish series of events could surely never occur in our logical world – Nollop elevated to the status of omniscient god, the Council his all-knowing, all-powerful interpreters and linguistic police – and yet, it is happening and no matter how loud the characters protest or scream or argue, nothing they do will end the insanity. Indeed, in order to win their freedom they must on some level accept the Council’s illogic – only the one who can pen a superior pangram to Nollop’s, containing every letter of the alphabet in 32 total letters or less, is declared worthy to nullify his supposed pronouncements.

If I had one criticism of this novel, it would be the lack of creativity of the protagonists in fighting against their domination by the Council. The few who speak out are immediately jailed, flogged, banished or killed. There is little or no attempt to defeat the Council through sheer force of numbers; at one point a counter-movement forms but little seems to come of it. Given the creativity that the island’s inhabitants use to continue communication with one another, their collective passivity seems a rather “easy out” for the author. (Why doesn’t anyone attempt, say, a general strike? Mass protests? And what happens when the Council’s henchmen themselves use the forbidden letters – as is inevitable?)

All in all, though, a highly recommended work – and one that will significantly stretch any reader’s vocabulary.😀

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

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