Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ella Minnow Pea

Because I had heard such praise of Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, especially at The Zen Leaf, I put it on my book wish list in February and almost immediately my brother's family picked it out and sent it to me for Jeanne Day (popularly celebrated on March 10). So I started reading it right away. I expected it to be clever, and it was; it's an epistolary novel in which every letter is a new lipogram. What I didn't expect was that the story would be so unpleasant. I would pick it up and read a page or two at a time, which was usually about all I could stomach.

There isn't that much story, really, just a set-up. The inhabitants of a fictional sea island, named "Nollop" after the fictional creator of the familiar typist's pangram "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog" have taken to Nollop-worship, and so when the letters of his famous phrase begin falling off his statue, some of them take it upon themselves to forbid the use of those letters, eventually descending to torture and banishment for those who disobey. It stretched my credulity to believe that anyone would stay on the island after the first little boy was flogged, and the first mother put in the stocks.

The letters are mildly amusing, especially when they celebrate the use of one letter right before it's about to be forbidden: "Have you not noticed the product of my decision to dribble this dreadful diatribe with as many uses of the doomed fourth letter as possible?" And as the letters go on, they get more ingenious, using the word "portal" to replace the d-word for a home's entrance, for example. Eventually the letter-writers resort to nearly phonetic substitution: "I am a persister, an ootlaster."

The plot culminates with the discovery of another 32-letter pangram using all the letters of the alphabet which is included in the computer-generated list of four that serves as a postscript to the story.

The possible charm of this book lies in matching your wits against the characters'. The remaining islanders race to think of a new pangram which will allow them to abolish Nollop-worship and restore the whole alphabet before everyone is banished. The satire didn't establish enough verisimilitude to work for me, but if you approach the book as a puzzle and try to invent a 32-letter pangram using all the letters of the alphabet before the other four are revealed, you would add some interest to the plot. If you're a fan of crytoquotes and crossword puzzles, this might be just the book for you.

11 comments:

FreshHell said...

Eh, I like a book with a story. A plot without such overt "cleverness." I suppose as an exercise, it's fine but...not as a novel.

Betty (Beth) said...

Not quite sure I'll be checking this one out. I'm not so big on torture scenes.

The idea and the word puzzles remind me a bit of "The Phantom Tollbooth" which I just finished. That's definitely worth picking up in case you've missed it (like I did).

Amanda said...

I thought this one had a wonderful story and wasn't unpleasant at all.

@Betty - there are no torture scenes, just a passing mention of floggings, as graphic as Jeanne laid out here.

Harriet said...

This sounds a little like Raymond Queneau's Exercises de Style, which I read in French class many years ago. Not sure if it's been translated into English. I think the cleverness of that book works better because it's actually 99 (I think) chapters of the same story told in different ways. At least one is a lipogram (I remember one leaving out the letter E). I need to go look for my copy.

Jenny said...

Oh, sorry it wasn't better for you. I wasn't that into the satire, but I enjoyed the book simply for its cleverness. I felt like the scenario was fantasy from the start, so wasn't bothered by the lack of verisimilitude (which, definitely, there was a lack of - it's an absurd premise really).

Aarti said...

I really want to read this one, but I can see why there is a large portion of the reading public that dislikes it. It seems like it could well be more witty than anything else, really.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I'm sorry this one wasn't great for you -- I felt like it was very clever, and the unpleasant stuff didn't seem so far out of the realm of possibility of what might happen in a situation like this one.

readersguide said...

I thought it was okay, but not more. Eh.

Jeanne said...

Betty, this is a bit like The Phantom Tollbooth in the abstractness of the ideas. Amanda's quite right; there aren't any torture scenes, just the mention of who chose flogging, who chose the stocks (and how badly her neck hurts afterwards) and who is being banished.

Kim, as someone who reads a lot of satire, I would never say that anything humans can dream up to do to each other is outside the realm of possibility! And if we're being realistic, it does take a lot of awfulness to make people actually leave their homes.

What I didn't care for is, as put it, the absurdity of the premise, clearly available for symbolic resonance. Nollop-worship can stand for almost anything. I, of course, tend to see it in terms of followers of the Westboro Baptist Church, Birthers, and fans of Andrew Klavan's novels (who are still sending me emails)...

Jeanne said...

"as Jenny put it" is what I meant to say!

bermudaonion said...

I'm expecting this book soon. I do love word puzzles, so I suspect I'll enjoy it!