Friday, 24 July 2015

Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea has one of the best subtitles I think I’ve ever come across: ‘A novel without letters’. It’s ironic, clever, amusing, the truth and a lie all in one go. This is a book in which certain letters from the alphabet gradually become outlawed – ultimately leaving just five (four consonants and a single vowel) for the author and characters to work with – yet is a story told purely though the medium of letters and notes, making it simultaneously a novel without letters and a novel full of them!

Ella Minnow Pea is a teenaged girl who lives with her parents on a small, independently governed island just off the coast of the United States. The island – Nollop – takes it’s name from a now deceased citizen of its nation, Nevin Nollop, who famously (or perhaps not so famously) created the sentence, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” This pangram, a sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet, is held by the islanders in highest elevation, representative, they believe, of a greatness of language to which all of its citizens should aspire.

Eschewing modern technology as far as possible, letter writing appears to be the dominant form of communication on Nollop, and so the story begins with Ella writing to her cousin Tassie, who lives in a village in a far corner of the island. There is a great deal of hubbub in the capital of Nollopton, we learn, where an alphabetical tile has fallen from the classic sentence that adorns Nevin Nollop’s statue in the town centre: the letter Z, to be exact. While most people begin by assuming it is simply an act of nature precipitated by weakened glue on said tile, the High Council soon pronounces that there is a much higher purpose to be gleaned from the event: namely, that the tumbling of the letter Z is “a terrestrial manifestation of Mr. Nollop’s wishes.” And Mr. Nollop’s wishes are? That ‘Z’ be expunged from the alphabet forever more.

As of midnight on August 7th, no citizen is allowed to speak, write, or be in possession of the letter Z. At the outset, Ella isn’t terribly concerned by the pronouncement: Z, after all, is a fairly little-used letter. The outlaw of its use shouldn’t provide too great a challenge, and the challenge that it does represent is one that she is happy and eager to embrace. But Tassie sees things differently… And when August 8th comes around and Z is no more, it becomes startlingly clear how widespread an effect the removal of even this small alphabetical letter can have.

Mark Dunn is a supreme master of the English language, and as Ella Minnow Pea (or L-M-N-O-P) unfolds it soon becomes clear what a fascinating construct it is. As missives go back and forth, between Ella and Tassie initially, and then between other characters as they are gradually brought in to the story, adding new shades of light and dark, we are quietly led to realize that, despite it’s hearty subtitle, there is much more to this tale that just letters. First, a rather strict series of punishments is put into place by the High Council for any alphabetical transgressors and then, as more letters begin to fall, utopia rapidly descends into classic dystopian territory, all notion of human rights and morality deserting the island leaders as their obsession with Nollop takes over.

Can Ella and her fellows find a way to stop the madness before it is too late?

The characters, the politics and their relationships are all wonderfully and intriguingly developed, but it is the structure of this novel that’s left the greatest mark on my thoughts. What result does losing just one or two letters have? Books, names, and foods are all lost, while neighbor turns upon neighbor, the close-knit community quickly imploding. The Nollopian desire to elevate language is met, though, in a sense, as the characters strive to talk around the words they would otherwise say or bring into employ less common usage words for the same meaning.

As letters fall in ever greater numbers, though, language starts to falter. First things are renamed (with the loss of D, for instance, days of the week become Sunshine, Monty, Toes, Wetty, Thurby, Fribs, and Satto-gatto). Then, instead of the flowery and well-considered manner of speaking and writing from before, sentences become stark and grammarless. Spellings are changed to make words that sound the same but which avoid the illegal lettering and ultimately, language loses all essential meaning, becoming a base form, impossible to write or speak, while most of the community is torn asunder and spread to the four winds.

The only way out is if they can find a new sentence that supersedes Nollop’s 35 piece sentence: a pangram of 32 letters or less. Then, the Council, promises, they will accept that Nollop is not, perhaps, the be-all and end-all of language that they currently believe. But is it possible? Can Ella find the magic sentence before the deadline the Council has set? Is there even a sentence to find?

By turns funny and disturbing, tender and thought-provoking, Ella Minnow Pea is wonderful and brilliant, letter-less and letter-full and which takes language to a whole new level.

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