Saturday, September 24, 2016

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I have wanted to read this novella ever since I first heard about it. After all, it was touted as having an, um, unique approach to language. Having read it, I have to agree. Very creative, and well executed. The paperback version (which is what I read) gives this as the full title: Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel In Letters, but it is the hardback title that really captures the essence: Ella Minnow Pea: a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable. Some fun words there. “Lipogrammatic” refers to a game in which one must write without using one or more of the letters of the alphabet. More broadly, it can refer to any game where the use of letters is the challenge. And, obviously, the title itself is a reference to letters.

Here is the basic idea. The fictional island of “Nollop” exists off the southeastern seaboard of the United States. (Kind of where Bermuda is, I suppose. Or Cuba, in the metaphorical sense.) The island is named after the fictional “Nevin Nollop,” who is worshiped as the creator of the world-famous pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” We connoisseurs of typography will be familiar with this as a sentence containing all the 26 letters of the English alphabet.

The inhabitants of Nollop have constructed a highly literate society that venerates language and letters. A statue of Mr. Nollop is the centerpiece of the capitol square, and his holy pangram adorns the statue.

The problems start when the glue holding the letters loosen, and the letters start falling. Rather than replace or repair them, the political powers that be decide that this is a divine message from almighty Nollop that they should henceforth stop using those letters in conversation or writing. In essence, this means censorship of the spoken and written word. Severe penalties are imposed, from shaming, to public whipping or the stocks, to lifetime banishment from the island. The penalties apply to all children above the age of 8 as well as adults, so the consequences are horrifying. Soon, the fervor sets neighbor against neighbor in a witch hunt that becomes more ludicrous as more and more letters fall.

Eventually, Ella and her fellow resistance workers must figure out how to stop the madness and restore sanity. Given the adoration of Nollop and his pangram, they must figure out how to fit all the letters into an even shorter sentence.

One reason the book is fascinating to those who are literate and witty is that Dunn writes it as a correspondence between the various characters, primarily Ella and her cousin. As the letters fall, the writers must - by government order on pain of exile - figure out how to communicate using ever fewer letters. At first, the letters seem merely stuffy and erudite. The characters are well educated, and in good command of the English language. Thus, for a less used letter, it is easy to find synonyms. However, as time goes on, there is so little left that it is extremely difficult to say anything at all, even with the use of phonetic substitutes (which are permitted in writing only) and numbers in place of letters. It must have cost Dunn some significant quality time with a thesaurus - and a lot of careful editing to be sure that that the forbidden letters were not used. Kind of like how the residents of Nollop had to slave over every utterance to be sure not to offend the authorities.

The fable works at two levels. On the one hand, there is a definite metaphorical reference to totalitarianism of all stripes. The use of the location does in that sense suggest Cuba or another Communist society, where the words of a long-dead philosopher are parsed and re-parsed to determine what is and is not permissible. (I recommend Anne Applebaum’s excellent book, Iron Curtain for more on the thought policing necessary.)

On the other, there is a definite intention to reference fundamentalist religion. Nollop is worshipped. Not merely venerated, but treated as a god, which he probably never intended. And disagreement with the interpretation of supposed omens is treated as rank heresy.

The key point here is that when you declare certain ideas and communication off limits, you end up destroying knowledge, and sacrificing the most intelligent and thoughtful people in your society. I certainly recognized some things from my own experience within a cultic group, where books were banned - and burned - certain ideas were off limits for discussion and questioning, and language itself had to be rewritten to avoid awkward truths that didn’t fit with perceived theological necessities.

Just a few quotes on this. From the Council, upon an appeal that the falling tiles are accidental:

We believe, further, that that Nollop does indeed speak to us from his place of eternal rest, through his manipulation of the tiles on his hallowed cenotaph, and that the Council serves only as has collective interpreter.
Why do we follow, without misgiving, the will of Nollop? Simply because without him this island would be a shallow shell, an empty conch compared to what it has, in fact, become: a beautiful, shady-shored haven of enchantment and delishmerelle.

Later, a scientist from the United States determines that the tiles are falling instead because the glue is weakening by natural processes. Ella’s cousin is optimistic that a presentation of these facts will sway the Council:

Nollop is not God. Nollop is silent. We must respect that silence and make our decisions and judgments based upon science and fact and simple old-fashioned common sense - a commodity absent for too long from those in governmental elevatia, where its employ would do us all much good.

Alas, no dice. The Council rules that there is no room for alternative interpretations. Any disagreement is in fact heresy. In a chilling moment, the Council also says what so many of us have heard before, in another context: “Adhering to the commandments of Nollop leaves no room for fear of punishment or forfeiture. He who walks in the light has no fear of darkness.” And also that there is no such thing as an accidental slip: just failure - refusal actually - to obey. I’ve heard these. Many times.

One more appeal remains, and they make it. It is the appeal that the science of the situation is not in opposition to Nollop. “Might not Nollop be working through the science? The science, in point of fact, actually serving his specific purposes?”

I think this is a crucial point. There has been a lot of unnecessary assertion of a tension between faith and science, and it does come down to a battle, not between faith and science as such, as between religious dogma and perceived theological needs in opposition to scientific discoveries, requiring ever greater levels of denial. Furthermore, there is this idea that blind obedience to dogma is the requirement of faith, and that reevaluation and change are heresy, rather than necessary approaches to changing circumstances and increased understanding.

In fact, though, Ella and her companions have it right: there is a need to reevaluate theological interpretation (as we have so often done throughout history) in light of new facts. Particularly the common-sense observation that a particular dogma is causing destruction. We would never have abolished slavery or polygamy, for example, without a wholesale rejection of long standing dogma. I’ll leave it at that for now.

The Council, as one might expect, cannot do its enforcement without help. It relies on citizens to report each other, which happens at first, because people tend to take the selfish way out rather than risk themselves. Naturally, this breeds distrust and leads to a breakdown of society. Very much like in the real life totalitarian regimes of all sorts the world has experienced.

The search for an alternative pangram becomes the all-consuming goal of the characters, and many fun sentences are interspersed as they seek to whittle the number of letters down to 32. I won’t give away the final solution, but I will mention one: “Six big devils from Japan quickly forgot how to waltz.” Fun stuff.

It’s a fairly light hearted book, with breezy language. But it has a sharp edge beneath. The suffering of the Nollopians is real, and the optimism of the characters cannot hide the brutality necessary to repress ideas and thought. Ultimately, once thinking and learning are forbidden, brutality must necessarily follow.

An interesting short modern work, and worth the while to read.


  1. This is basically the darker, philosophical, adult version of James Thurber's The Wonderful O, which I read this summer. It covers a lot of the same ideas in a more fairy tales-and-wordplay sort of style. I don't know how old your kids are, but it's a fun little book.

    1. Oddly, I don't think I have read that one, and I have read a lot of Thurber in my lifetime. My second daughter (age 12) enjoyed The Thirteenth Clock, and I am trying to get her to read the Fables. Few could write about language like Thurber.

      "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend Me Your Earmuffs!"

    2. Yeah, this was my first Thurber. I should look into the others.

    3. I have a hard time deciding which of his essay collections is my favorite. I vacillate between Lanterns and Lances on the one hand (because of gems like The Darlings at the Top of the Stairs, Moments with Mandy, and Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend Me Your Earmuffs) and Alarms and Diversions (because of the many drawings, his memory of his Aunt Wilma, sendups of parenting trends, jingoistic patriotism, and especially "My Own Ten Rules for a Happy Marriage.")

      But, please, please tell me you have at least read The Secret Life of Walter Mitty...