Sunday, July 15, 2018

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

My Tassie,I am watching you through the pane. You sit at the table scribbling--scribbling, then erasing, biting, chewing the unfortunate pencil's extremity as you contemplate. I share your chore. I might be your portico twin, in perch upon this fresco-chaise, performing same, were it not for glimpsing you through the glass. Such a beguiling sight--your long auburn tresses falling as a cataract in shimmering filamentous pool upon the tabletop, gathering in swirl upon your notepaper--obscuring? framing? your toil. 
Ella Minnow Pea is both an epistolary novel and a lipogram. A lipogram, I learned in the book's opening pages, is a piece written to purposely avoid one or more letters of the alphabet. The conceit here is the residents of Nollop, an island nation off the coast of South Carolina, are a people of letters devoted to their former islander, Nevin Nollop. Nollop is the author of the famous pangram (another word I learned on the first page) "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." When the forces of gravity start to act on a statue of Nollop and the letters of his masterpiece begin to fall, the Nollopian government slowly outlaws one letter after the next in both spoken and written speech. As the novel unfolds, its characters have the use of fewer and fewer letters until they are reduced to an almost indecipherable mess.

The titular Ella, her cousin Tassie, their parents, and Tassie's love interest Nate make up the bulk of the letter-writers, but other notes and formal announcements are sprinkled throughout. Even as their ability to communicate dwindles, the characters' voices are distinct and their attempts to survive in their ever more draconian society while searching for a new pangram (their government has set this as their challenge if they want their letters back).

There are a lot of overly obvious messages here about the power of words and what happens to people when their speech is controlled; I found myself rolling my eyes a few times at how explicit that message became--not only through the metaphor of restricted speech, but through the characters' commentary. In some ways it felt like a cheap Handmaid's Tale with a technical twist.

Overall, this was a fun read as an experiment in style and form. I was impressed with how much Dunn was able to do within the constraints he set for himself. There were times when it felt like I was reading a high schooler's essay who had recently discovered the power of the thesaurus, but generally the character's retained their voices and the plot moved forward.

As a nod to the spirit of the lipogram, I wrote this review without the first three letters to disappear from Nollop: Q, Z, and J (with the exception of the pangram which would have been incomplete without them). J was the hardest!