Sometimes books make you think. Sometimes they make you feel. Sometimes they make you wish you’d read something else. Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn makes you smile.
The novel is literally a book of letters back and forth between the residents of the island of Nollop, a fictional island off the coast of South Carolina populated by somewhat eccentric folk who value vocabulary to a degree that pushes the boundaries of learned people everywhere.
Formerly Utopianna, the country’s name was changed in 1904 to honor native son Nevin Nollop, the author of the popular pangram sentence The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
The town square of Nollopton includes a cenotaph adorned with tiles depicting the vaunted sentence, but one day the “Z” tile mysteriously falls to the ground, shattering upon impact. After much closed-door debate, the High Island Council reaches the only irrational conclusion: Nevin Nollop has decreed, from the grave, the letter “Z” should be stricken from usage.
While the people of Nollop could seemingly adjust to the elimination of the last alphabetical letter, it also implies, among other things, any book containing Z is verboten and clearly, all the libraries must close. The punishment for the use of the prohibited letter?
…to speak or write any word containing the letter “Z”, or to be found in possession of any written communication containing this letter, one will receive for a first offense, a public oral reprimand either by a member of the island Law Enforcement Brigade (known with trembling affection as the L.E.B.) or by a member of its civilian-auxiliary. Second offenders will be offered choice between the corporal pain of body-flogging and the public humiliation of headstock upon the public square…For the third offense, violators will be banished from the island. Refusal to leave upon order of the Council will result in death.
The book’s epistles describe the lives of several Nollopian including one, Ms. Ella Minnow Pea, as they seek to navigate this new environment. Predictably, more tiles begin succumbing to gravity (owing to faulty adhesive as discovered by an off-island scientist) and yet, the High Island Council digs in, banning the use of more letters, and publicly humiliating, flogging, and banishing its citizenry.
The already verbose population employs their vocabulary to great effect as letters meet their demise and become banned. For those who love words, this novel is a cornucopia of delight.
Superfluous. Fealty. Diabolical. Pyres. Diminution. Jocular. Aposiopesis.
These are but some of the words common in Nollop.
As time progresses, the inevitable end of language draws nigh, and the High Council becomes ever more certain of its righteous interpretation of Nollop’s wishes from the grave, a small and mighty group begins working on “Project 32,” the objective of which is to produce a pangram with fewer letters than Nollop’s, thereby disproving his divinity.
Again, this book is really fun; a delight to read. But if you’re unable to maintain the mental detachment required by the novel, a realization begins to creep in. It’s a realization that so many times we as a society also ascribe ridiculous causation to correlated events and similarly humiliate, abuse, and shun our friends and neighbors who dare to question such spurious correlations.
Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn is a fun, clever read but its also pure, scathing satire. It is social commentary and readers beware…if you read this book it makes you uncomfortable, if you find yourself dismissing it as simple reductio ad absurdum…question your assumptions as the ice on which you stand is very thin indeed.
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