17 August 2004

Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn

I’ve noticed that in this space I rarely write about what I’m reading, even though I’m technically training to be a professional reader. I should try to do a better job of sharing that aspect of my life. Here goes:

Recently I finished Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea (New York: Anchor-Random, 2002), an epistolary novel set primarily in the fictitious island nation of Nollop, “21 miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina.” The plot revolves around letters disappearing from a statue whose tiled lettering spells the famous sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” As letters disappear from the statue, the council bans their use in written and oral communication.

The result is far more suspenseful than I thought it would be. Dunn moves the novel beyond simple writing exercise (i.e., “Write with an ever-decreasing number of letters”). This starts out as a seemingly easy exercise—the first two letters he excises are z and q—but as more frequently used letters disappear, Dunn’s style is forced to become increasingly creative. The characters seem well-developed (which helps), and each has his or her own writing style (which makes them compelling individuals). Dunn ultimately critiques unthinking devotion but more importantly appeals to the value of language. He persuasively asserts that words and letters have intense power and must be treated with sensitivity, love, and respect.

Part of his critique is aimed at “quick” means of communication, such as e-mail and instant messaging (and probably—ahem—blogging). For Ella Minnow Pea and for Dunn, language and writing are essential elements of thinking, which I find a persuasive position, but that’s a topic for another time.

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