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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Ella Minnow Pea

Mark Dunn

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To purchase Ella Minnow Pea

Title: Ella Minnow Pea
Author: Mark Dunn
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001
Length: 206 pages
Availability: Ella Minnow Pea - US
Ella Minnow Pea - UK
Ella Minnow Pea - Canada
Ella Minnow Pea - India
L'isle lettrée - France
Nollops Vermächtnis - Deutschland
  • US hardcover subtitle: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable
  • US paperback subtitle: A Novel in Letters

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Our Assessment:

A : a clever idea, very well done -- and a good story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 4/10/2001 Ron Charles
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A Summer/2003 Irving Malin
San Francisco Chronicle . 4/11/2001 Mark Luce
The Spectator . 7/9/2002 Kevin Jackson
The Times . 10/8/2002 Giles Coren

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ella Minnow Pea is the first political satire of the 21st century, and, appropriately, it's a kinder, gentler satire. (...) Dunn has produced something between a crossword puzzle and a witty political allegory. (...) There's the whiff of a classic about Ella Minnow Pea. It's lighter than those high-school standards 1984 or Brave New World, but even when only LMNOP remain, it's touched by sweetness." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "We slowly conclude that without language, without culture -- the two are inextricably bound -- existence itself is at stake. And we forget that the novel is only playful. Soon we see that a void, a blankness, awaits us." - Irving Malin, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Dunn obviously spent significant energy and creativity to write without certain letters, and there are several nice turns of phrase in the book. As a novel, though, Ella Minnow Pea reads like a literary StairMaster -- a decent workout, but don't expect to go anywhere." - Mark Luce, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "As will be apparent, Dunnís book is really a fairy story about intolerance and mass hysteria, in the form of a technical exercise. It is a sweet-natured piece (.....) But compared to Perec, Ella Minnow Pea is as simple as ABC." - Kevin Jackson, The Spectator

  • "As freedom of expression becomes increasingly problematic, one begins to search for Dunn's satirical target. And it is hard to identify, for this is pure allegory. Animal Farm, written for a simpler ideological world, was easy. But are we talking about religious fundamentalism here (a latter-day Tale of a Tub) ? The collapse of literacy ? Or are we allegorising allegory? Who knows? Perhaps Dunn is lambasting evil men who would suppress lipograms." - Giles Coren, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ella Minnow Pea is a charming and clever fable of unlikely design, full of anything but idle wordplay.
       One can't get around the wordplay -- it's central to the novel -- but it seems almost a shame to focus on it, because the book is so much more than merely a clever game. Still, mention must be made, explanations proffered.
       The original subtitle for the book (for the hardcover edition) was: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable. This has been simplified (fairly cleverly, and almost adequately) for the paperback edition to: A Novel in Letters. Ella Minnow Pea is a tale related entirely in the letters the characters send to one another (hence: an epistolary novel). It is a challenging form, but Dunn manages to convey the action very well in this manner -- and, indeed, the book could hardly be told as effectively without these letters.
       This is because, in fact, it is told without other letters: that's the lipogrammatic aspect of the novel. A lipogram is -- as helpfully defined at the beginning of the book -- "a written work composed of words selected so as to avoid the use of one or more letters of the alphabet". (It's a favourite game of the Oulipo-gang -- see our reviews of their books for some other examples.) As time passes in the novel, less and less letters of the alphabet are at the disposal of the characters, and so letter-writing (and any communication) becomes ever more complicated.
       All this sounds far more complex and ridiculous than what readers might want to put up with. Oh, but it's well, well worth your while.

       Ella Minnow Pea is set in Nollop, a small island off America's southern Atlantic coast. It is named after Nevin Nollop, revered for his discovery of the pangram: "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." A pangram is a sentence or verse that uses all the letters of the alphabet -- preferably with as few duplications as possible. This one is considered so remarkable because of its brevity, using all 26 letters of the alphabet in a 35-character sentence.
       The islanders revere language. They are still "a nation of letter-writers", and make a great effort to express themselves well and clearly. (Their letters are thus a bit ... flowery, but still a pleasure to read.) They live in a sort of literary paradise, where the written word is highly regarded and mass media, TV, and schlock have not debased life.
       Then disaster strikes. A memorial was erected to Nollop on the island -- a statue, with his immortal sentence printed out in tiles on the pedestal. One day the tile with letter "Z" falls off. And the ruling five-man Council decide this is a message from Nollop himself, that henceforth he wants the islanders to do without the letter Zed.
       It is outlawed. It can no longer be used in writing or in speech. Any writing which has a "Z" in it is to be destroyed. For those who violate the law and write or speak the dreaded letter there is a three-strikes-and-you're-out law: get caught three times and you're banished to America.
       Immediately island life changes drastically, as the library is shut (there are no books that don't contain the offending letter). The citizens don't take it too seriously at first, voicing some outrage but generally accepting the new edict. And they adapt, sending Z-less letters now.
       Things quickly escalate, as another tile drops off, then another, then another in ever quicker succession. Communication becomes ever-more complicated, transgressions (and banishments) take a huge toll. The language-idyll that was Nollop becomes a totalitarian nightmare almost overnight.
       Only one thing can save the island: the Council acts as it does because it believes the falling tiles are the work of god-Nollop himself. His discovery of the great pangram is testament and proof of his linguistic genius and leadership -- but if another pangram, of equal length or shorter can be found then it would prove that he was not all-knowing and infallible. So Enterprise 32 is born, the search for a pangram that will better Nollop's.
       Ella Minnow Pea (yes, L-M-N-O-P -- there's almost nothing in this book that isn't also a wordgame) is just one of the central characters, but among those who manages to hold out the longest, never giving up in her search to find the elusive pangram before time is up. It's a close race, and Dunn marvelously heightens the tension as the tiles drop like flies and language becomes ever-more limited.
       Again: it might sound like this is all just wordplay, but it's not. Dunn has fashioned a real novel here -- wordplay just happens to be at the centre of it. The characters do come alive, even as the language is deadened, and their daily concerns are very nicely rendered. There's suspense here, and love, and a great deal of affection for language and people. And the book zips along quickly enough that the wordplay does not get tiresome.
       Ella Minnow Pea is also a very effective allegory of totalitarianism. These limits on language may seem absurd and arbitrary, but the Council's basis for action is no more ridiculous than those given by Bible-thumpers, Islamic fundamentalists, or many elected officials in countries such as the United States or Great Britain (not to mention unelected officials in all your favourite totalitarian nations) for limiting the rights of individuals. The way power can easily be abused even in what appears to be a cultured, civilized nation is nicely demonstrated.

       This is a simple, utterly engaging tale, a quick and always enjoyable read, a strikingly clever book, and more. It is a very ambitious novel, and it succeeds completely in everything it sets out to do. A remarkable achievement. We recommend it very strongly

       (To teachers we suggest also that this is an ideal text for school-reading -- students can learn from both the method and the message (plus it's just plain good fun).)

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Ella Minnow Pea: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Oulipo books at the complete review
  • Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American playwright Mark Dunn lives in New York.

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© 2002-2021 the complete review

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