Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ella Minnow Pea



My son’s girlfriend was talking to me about a book she had read entitled Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. She was kind enough to take it out of library and lend it to me. The book is subtitled “a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable.” It is quite marvelous, a funny blend of social commentary/dystopia with charming and inventive word play.

A summary: there’s an imaginary island off the coast of South Carolina which reveres its famous son who invented the pangram “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog.” The founders of the island have erected a monument spelling out the phrase. One day a letter falls from the monument and they ban the use of that letter. In subsequent weeks, new letters fall and those letters are banned from all communications, verbal and oral. There are severe punishments for the use of these forbidden letters. There is an underground resistance movement which forms. The entire book is told in letters and notes sent back and forth between various people and so one can observe the various circumlocutions and euphemisms that they need to employ in order to communicate without using the verboten letters. Eventually, the underground movement strikes a deal: if they can create an even shorter pangram (a phrase using all of the letters of the alphabet) than the revered and deified originator of “The Quick Brown Fox” pangram, they will have proved that the originator of the phrase isn’t party to special wisdom and he’s not been communicating via the falling letters.

This book is an allegory or fable about freedom of speech, about oligarchies and theocracies. In one way, it is simple in the way of fables – it’d be amazing to read with a bunch of Grade 8s – it is captivating and pulls off its constraints with charm and adroitness, the thrill of the virtuoso writing propelling one forward. Further, I felt like I really cared about what happened, and – through the narrative technique of the characters searching for the shortest pangram and their seeking freedom– was invested in their success.

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