Ella Minnow Pea is the smartest and sweetest novel I’ve ever read. I’m envious of Mark Dunn, the author, because his central story simple. It’s set on the fictional island of Nollop, home of the fictional Nevin Nollop, the man who invented the sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” That sentence is preserved in tile below a statue of Nevin, but when the tiles start coming off, well… so back to Dunn. His tale is great, though straightforward; within my grasp, perhaps, to even have made up. But as for the execution of that tale, Dunn does something completely unique. That is what makes Ella Minnow Pea my very favorite.
As each lettered tile falls to the ground the people of Nollop take it as a sign from the long-dead Nevin—so they ban that letter from all words and conversation. And, as each chapter progresses, and as more tiles fall and letters are declared off-limits, Dunn’s writing follows suit. It hardly affects things when the Z is lost (thank goodness it’s the first to exit, right?), but next comes Q, J, and then D. I’m quite particular to J’s, but the writing is clear here, and enough so that I probably wouldn’t notice the initial lack of J’s if I didn’t know Dunn’s main conceit. Then, once it’s obvious the novel is only using half the alphabet it’s impossible not to admire Dunn’s extremely clever prose.
The subtitle for Ella Minnow Pea in hardback is “A progressively lipogrammatic epistolary tale.” A lipogram is a type of constrained writing. If you saw the drabble I got published earlier, it’s similar to a lipogram in some ways. A drabble is a piece of writing under 100 words, or of exactly 100 words. A lipogram is constrained in how it uses letters, not in terms of length, and to me it’s the English language at its most fun. There are all sorts of lipograms, written in book to flash fiction format. If you have time, try reading Gadsby, the novel without E’s, or Never Again, the novel which uses every word once and only once—they both blow me away.
A note from an admirer to Ella Minnow Pea, the novel’s eighteen year-old protagonist, exemplifies writing in the novel’s second half: “A pleasure it was to meet you two nights ago. Your smile warms me, illuminating the gloom. (The hug was pleasant as well.)” It reads pretty naturally—can you tell there’s no B’s, C’s, D’s, F’s, J’s, K’s, Q’s, V’s, or Z’s? There’s a bit of love in the tale, a bit of friendship, the novel’s epistolary format adds a great sense of urgency to what could have been straight-up whimsy, and there’s a lot about the freedom of speech, totalitarianism, and groupthink. And all this in a work based around a typing exercise.
So Ella’s task? To come up with a new sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet, to replace the old one that the town has celebrated for so long. But this sentence has to be shorter than the original, more efficient. As Ella comes up with sentence after sentence that just doesn’t quite fit the bill (“My girl wove six dozen plaid jackets before she quit,” “Zelda quickly wove eight nubby flax jumpers”) her sense of positive determination is gripping. The closest thing I can compare Ella Minnow Pea to in terms of smarts, entertainment—and yes, sweetness—is the film Spirited Away. If you’re uninitiated with either, check them out.
–Jeff and Leah