I forgot my current read (Mary Roach’s charmingly macabre work of nonfiction, Stiff,) at home this weekend, but there’s always the Kindle app on the phone to get me through. I had recently downloaded a book under blinder circumstances than usual: I had never heard of the title (Ella Minnow Pea) or the author (Mark Dunn). But a friend–the brilliant editor-in-chief of local art and lit journal East on Central–had recommended it, and I know her to have excellent taste.
She described the plot a bit to me, and it seemed like a fun curiosity. In essence, the book sounded like a written experiment in literary constraints, akin to Oulipo darling Georges Perec’s A Void. (or, in his native tongue, La Disparition. But the literal English translation of the French title, The Disappearance, would not do–the entire book is written without a single use of the letter ‘e.’)
Ella Minnow Pea (sing it out loud with me…q, r, s…t, u, v) is likewise a book about literary constraints and is likewise adorably titled. It takes place on a fictional island that reveres the inventor of the sentence “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” and has built a monument with lettered tiles spelling out his masterpiece. But the monument is old. One by one, the letters from the sentence begin to fall. In response, the government forbids use of the letters, believing the sentence-writer is speaking from beyond the grave.
The author tells the story through the townsfolk’s written correspondence, so he uses increasingly fewer letters of the alphabet as the book progresses. Cute, right?
Then there’s the cover.
See? Awww. Don’t you want to pinch its little cheeks?
Folks, this book is not cute. It’s an Orwellian allegory.
It’s about the inquisition. It’s about free speech. It’s about the crusades. It’s about McCarthyism. It’s about what happens when superstition trumps science. But I think it’s mostly about the power of language and what happens when it’s taken away—about the human need to connect with one another and how vital written and verbal communication is to that connection.
In the book, a people living on a separatist island of the U.S. coast have founded a whole culture based on letters. Consequently, they all toss around these unconventionally eloquent turns of phrase–their speech patterns are swirling loops of lovely. Their writing is a delight to consume. All you learn of the island, you learn directly from its inhabitants, as the author chooses to convey the plot of his novel solely through the letters written by characters to one another. (And by “letters,” I mean “missives,” “notes,” “emails but with pens,” etc. It’s poignant, in the context of the book, that the word “letters” can mean two different things and that both are so significant in the novel. But, boy, does it make it difficult to write a clear blog post about the book.) As mail becomes subject to government inspection, and the use of, um, alphabetical characters becomes removed bit by bit from the vocabulary of the inhabitants of the island, the reader can see these elegant people reduced to baby talk. Yet they never stop trying to communicate, even when their usable alphabet consist of letters you can count on one hand. And hats off to the author who insists on playing by the rules of his own game–on living this struggle to communicate, along with his characters.
This book isn’t just play, the way some postmodern and otherwise experimental books are. The plot is solid, well-told, and deeply moving. The draconian measures taken against violators of the law remind the reader of all the shudder-inducing censorship and stripping of rights we’ve learned about from history (both our own in the U.S. and that of other nations/empires), and it reminds us of that which we hear of present totalitarian and theocratic states. The government of this island has declared itself the interpreter of god’s will, and the people in charge feel the execution of punishment justified, even holy. Neighbor turns in neighbor for using banned letters. Some do it to satisfy old grudges, and some honestly buy into the religious rhetoric. Even insurrection is discussed with increasingly limited language, and communication is reduced to nonsense. The names of days and months become downright comical.
The book has a good ending, and I won’t say any more about it than that. I will say that it’s a great read for many reasons:
1. It’s entertaining. I read it in an afternoon easily, and I couldn’t put it down.
2. The author is an excellent writer. He himself has a grasp on the English language that’s just breathtaking to read. And he uses his self-imposed constrains to develop an empathy with his characters that shows. He manages to communicate clearly, elegantly, and cleverly the entire way through, even while showing the struggle to communicate.
3. The commentary on superstition, tyranny, censorship and our need for language is just stellar.
4. It’s not one bit cute. That’s a great deal for me. If I want cute, I’ll do an image search for baby bunnies: I’m not really looking for cute in my books.
One final though—find your reading soulmates and have them recommend books. You’ll have a steady supply of custom delights that you would have never discovered on your own.