Ella Minnow Pea

Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea: A novel without letters, Methuen, 2003

This is quite an unusual novel, and one which must have been quite a challenge to write.

It is set in an independent island state called Nollop–named after Nevin Nollop, who according to the island’s religion was the originator of the sentence The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. In the island’s culture, words and writing are very important. They believe (wrongly) that Nollop’s is the shortest possible English sentence containing all letters of the alphabet; Nevin Nollop is revered (or maybe worshipped) as its originator. There is a statue of him on the island, complete with lettered tiles bearing his famous sentence.

All is well until one day the letter Z falls from the statue. The island’s council, who turn out to have fundamentalist beliefs and totalitarian tendencies, decide that

  • the falling of the tile is a message from beyond the grave from Nollop
  • the message is that the letter Z should no longer be used
  • they should introduce harsh penalties for its use–in speech as well as in writing.

This of course has rather drastic consequences, such as the destruction of all books containing the letter Z, which is all of them. And as the novel is written entirely in the form of correspondence, the author too has to stop using the letter.

A short while later, the letter Q falls from the statue. A new decree is issued. As time goes on, more and more letters fall, and each in turn is banned. The situation on the island becomes more and more dire, the rules ever stricter, language ever more unusual and ingenious, and the story ever more engrossing.

Ella is the main character. If you read her name aloud, you will see why she’s called that: LMNOP. And the crisis does indeed reach the point where these are the only letters available for use. At which point… But if I told you that, you’d know the climax of the story. Suffice to say that sanity eventually prevails.

It might sound as though this book is nothing more than a literary trick–to write with most of the alphabet missing–but actually it’s much more than that. It’s an allegory about why irrationality, fundamentalism and totalitarianism are wrong. And I say that as someone who does have a religious faith; just not a fundamentalist one (in fact I think fundamentalism is incompatible with real religion, which should be liberating, not enslaving). Maybe it’s also about the human urge for communication: even with most of the alphabet missing, people still find ways to express themselves. And it is also very entertaining: satire at its best.

Here is the Council’s explanation of why extreme punishments are acceptable (at this point, only the letters Z and Q are forbidden):

Those of you who see undue cruelty in the punishments meted our for speaking or writing the forbidden letters should make note of the following three points:

  1. Adhering to the commandments of Nollop leaves no room for fear of punishment or forfeiture. (He who walks in the light has no reason to fear the darkness.)

  2. There is no such thing as accident or misspeak, only grossly under-applied discoursal perspicacity, with unguarded exposure to distractional digression. (A lighted path is clear. There is no reason, save mischief, to stray into the darkness.)
  3. The severity of the punishment is an irrelevant issue, given the opportunity to avoid punishment altogether. (Keep to the path to avoid what is promised to be a broken and jagged shoulder.)

A clear, but totally wrong, argument…

And here’s an example of the language later into the book, when B, C, D, F, J, K, Q, V and Z are all illegal and Ella leaves a note for one of her neighbours, who has been looking for food:

Woman in pretty orange hat:
My name is Ella. I saw you yesters, rummaging in the rear — that shut Itlian restaurant on Main. No got to rummage. There are plenty eats in Wally’s store at Eighth meets Elm. (Are you a shrimp eater?) Wally, I hear, is a humane man. He is rationing eats — they will last longer this way. No money? No got to worry. We who are still here will help one another. I want to meet you. See me tonight?
I use to possess relations — my mother, my papa, my Aunt Mittie, her she-heir Tassie. Gone now. All those near to me, gone.
I am alone. Perhaps you are alone too?
See me tonight? My home: 4 houses east. I got stew tomatoes!

As you’ll have gathered, I love language and I found this an engrossing read. I strongly recommend it to someone who wants to read something a bit different (and satirical, but also deadly serious).

Why did I choose today to write about this book? One of the keys of my phone dropped off, leaving me unable to use the letters W, X, Y and Z until I’d glued it back on…!

Update: another review

Viewing Google searches that brought people here is a very useful thing. On this occasion (Sept. 2nd) I had a look to see the other search results and I discovered another review of the book, by an equally enthusiastic reader whose blog can be found at http://kimiswellread.blogspot.com/ and is well worth a look if you would like to browse lots of book reviews (mainly of fiction).

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