24 August 2011

Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea, 2001

A curious kind of literal contrivance that at first engages, then risks infuriating, then ultimately begging the question what's the point other than to prove it can be done? On the island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina the supposed creator of the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is immortalised with a statue memorial. The island government takes the pangram very seriously, so when tiles containing the letters fall from the inscription the island’s government progressively bans the letters’ use from written or spoken communication, and this is how the novel itself has been constructed. Dunn has points to make (or rather, imply) about totalitarianism, freedom of speech and the mindless imposition of meaningless laws, sufficiently well for Ella Minnow Pea to be selected as Borders ‘Book of the Year’ and to be turned into a stage play in Michigan in 2008. Deliberately writing with a gradually decreasing alphabet with which to work must have been challenging; the wordplay, however, inevitably becomes constrained to the point of breaking the reader’s patience, only redeemed by the rather cold cleverness of the concept. This is comparable to Franck Pavloff’s excellent brown, which put much the same point across only without the impressive linguistic gymnastics.  PY


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