Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn (a blog post with a twist)

About 15 months ago, I got a gift from a lady at my book group: Ella Minnow Pea (2001) by Mark Dunn. Fast forward a bit, and I finally got around to it, and found it a surprisingly brilliant small book.

I did know Ella Minnow Pea‘s main, and most original, ‘gimmick’, if you will – that Mark Dunn gradually lost a, b, c, so on and so forth, throughout his book – and had thought that it was simply a witty structuring and a prolonging of a trick. It had a possibility of growing a touch dull or awkward (thought I) but was still worth trying out.

And, it turns out, my worry was wholly without basis.  Ella Minnow Pea is a fairly brilliant out-working of a good trick – but it is also dark and disturbing, on occasion, and not at all a throwaway, whimsical sort of book. I hadn’t thought it would turn out so dark…

Dunn’s story all occurs on an island known as Nollop, in honour of Mr. Nollop, famous for composing an important pangram – which you might know (follow this link.)  I don’t know if Nollop is fictitious or not – Wiki is willfully ignoring him, if not – but Nollop is akin to a god for folk on his island.  So much so, that Town Councillors await his laws from on high – although Nollop is, sadly, long lost to this mortal world.  His command is, (so Councillors say), shown by Nollop Island’s local bust of his body – or, particularly, wording put by a sculptor on it, of Mr. Nollop’s pangram.  As parts of its wording fall off, Councillors claim that it is a dictat from Mr. Nollop, that island inhabitants must drop that part of vocabulary – by mouth or by writing.  If inhabitants do not comply: a warning for a first infraction, whipping for an additional slip, and banishing from Nollop for a third.

At first, as ‘z’ falls from Nollop’s famous pangram, nobody thinks much about it.  It will not significantly adjust island inhabitants’ communication – for how much do folk say ‘z’ anyway?

As ‘q’ follows ‘z’, and ‘j’ follows ‘q’, things start to grow in difficulty – and angst among inhabitants, many of whom unwittingly infract Nollop’s laws, with postliminary warning, whipping – or having to sail away from Nollop for good.  Many Nollopians opt to abandon an unhappy island voluntarily…

Fourth to go is ‘d’, which brings with it appalling frustration.  Ella Minnow Pea all consists of writing from inhabitant to inhabitant, mum to child, aunt to young girl – scrawlings which Councillors scan for contraband words, but nothing apart from that, so this lady’s inclusion of painful or incautious topics won’t occasion Councillors burning or taking a communication:

My sweet Mittie, it is strange, so terribly strange how taxing it has become for me to speak, to write without these four illegal letters, but especially without the fourth.  I cannot see how, given the loss of one letter more, I will be able to remain among those I love, for surely I will misstep.  So I have chosen to stop talking, to stop writing altogether.
I found it a tiny bit difficult to work out who was who (or whom was whom, mayhap) always, but Ella Minnow Pea is primarily about a girl with that lmnop-sounding alias, maintaining a campaign against Nollop’s Councillors – trying (with similarly stubborn island folk) to craft a rival to Nollop’s pangram, which will (curiously) abolish Nollop Island’s Town Council’s dominant control of vocabulary.

It was surprisingly moving, actually. I think Dunn might aim for Ella Minnow Pea to imply an analogy with a Fascist nation, or any sort of dictatorship which bans individual autonomy. It was chilling, as inhabitants of Nollop lost rights, all books in Nollop’s library – burnt, straightaway, for invariably having ‘z’ – and, following from that, inhabitants lost all availability for articulation.

As I said at this post’s start – Ella Minnow Pea is surprisingly dark – but not gratuitously so at all.

Mark Dunn isn’t original in writing a book which avoids using a particular part of A-Z – in fact, a book using this cunning trick is known as a ‘lipogram‘ (Dunn’s book is, if you will, lipogrammatic) – but not many authors could discard so many words and still craft a story so brilliant, almost as though this linguistic loss had no ability to limit his writing or imagination.  Only Dunn could craft a book so moving and full of wisdom, with this handicap – thank you so much, Ruth, for giving it to Simon’s Book Gift Mountain.

And now, that twist – did you spot that this blog post – I think! – was built (apart from citations and quoting ‘Ella Minnow Pea‘ in full), without using any ‘e‘s at all…?  Not with Dunn’s brilliant cunning at doing so, although I must admit that it was oddly tiring!

Congratulations, if you did spot that!

26 thoughts on “Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn (a blog post with a twist)

  • March 14, 2013 at 11:51 pm
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    I read Ella Minnow Pea years ago and loved it! I was so impressed with Dunn's creativity. Glad you enjoyed it as well (It's not a book that everyone enjoys). Kudos on your "without e's" blog post…it's as impressive as the book.
    Beth

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    • March 20, 2013 at 7:25 pm
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      My book group is now going to read it sometime later in the year, so I'll be intrigued to see what they make of it… or the reasons that someone could dislike it!

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  • March 15, 2013 at 8:03 am
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    Well done, though, oh dear, I hope not using 'e' doesn't catch on! I'd be hopeless (oh, I guess I'd need another word there too). This book sounds like something I'd enjoy. Have you read Georges Perec's book without 'e'? (I have not, as yet).

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    • March 20, 2013 at 7:26 pm
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      I haven't – but, having written this, I'm filled with admiration for him! Harder still in French, I'd have thought.

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  • March 15, 2013 at 8:05 am
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    I did not spot the twist. You're so clever, Simon! :)

    My book club read Ella Minnow Pea a few years ago, but I was unable to get hold of a copy. What a pity! I should redouble my efforts now.

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    • March 20, 2013 at 7:26 pm
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      Thanks Diana!
      I'm looking forward to discussing this with my book group later in the year – it's a quick read, but a lot to discuss.

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  • March 15, 2013 at 10:20 am
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    I have had this on my shelf for around the same time as you. Ana pushed it on me when I visited her in Manchester. I had no clue what the book was about then, but since then I keep encountering it in the blogosphere and so many of my favourite bloggers seem to love it. I'm glad to hear you can be added to that list. I guess it's high time I finally read it, right?

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  • March 15, 2013 at 3:28 pm
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    I loved this book when I read it. Sadly, Dunn's book Ibid, in which the story is written in footnotes, doesn't quite live up to Ella Minnow Pea. Good job writing a whole post without using e!

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    • March 20, 2013 at 7:28 pm
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      Not gonna lie, it was difficult to write it without using the word 'letter'!!

      All in footnotes, huh? Hmm… interesting idea… it sounds a bit like The Simmons Papers which I read recently, and wasn't enamoured by.

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  • March 15, 2013 at 4:54 pm
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    What a fab post Simon. This book was a book group pick and said group did find it fascinating, and had a unusually long and robust discussion about it. I had no notion of your twist in this post until you said it – Silly me – oops!

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    • March 20, 2013 at 7:28 pm
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      Thanks Annabel! And well done on your (almost) e-less comment! Difficult, isn't it? 'The' is a definite loss…

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    • March 20, 2013 at 7:28 pm
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      Thanks Karen! I think you'd enjoy and value this. Let me know if you read it :)

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    • March 20, 2013 at 7:29 pm
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      I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this, Debbie – pop back and let me know!

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    • March 20, 2013 at 7:29 pm
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      Some sentences were easier than others! I did use an online thesaurus a LOT. Thanks for the link to your review :)

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  • March 16, 2013 at 6:10 pm
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    Great post Simon and very clever too – no I didn't spot it at all.

    I read Ella Minnow Pea last year for a book group I now no longer attend – I hadn't thought I would like it much but i was wrong. I thought it brilliant too.

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    • March 20, 2013 at 7:30 pm
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      Thanks Ali! I'm pleased that nobody spotted it – I thought my avoiding of 'letter', 'character', and 'alphabet' might make people notice!

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  • March 17, 2013 at 5:51 pm
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    I didn't know the term "pangram" before reading your post – nor had I heard of this book, but I'll be looking for it. And I am in awe of an entire post written e-lessly.

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    • March 20, 2013 at 7:31 pm
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      It was oddly exhausting! And I haven't attempted a repeat in the comments, you'll note…
      I did have to google to find the word 'pangram'… I knew it had *a* word, but didn't know what it was.

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  • March 21, 2013 at 12:24 am
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    I looove this book! I find it's usually an easy sell to a bibliophile, particularly considering how short it is!

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  • May 4, 2013 at 5:07 pm
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    Simon – I thought this was exceedingly clever and thought-provoking. It's my top pick of the books I read in April.

    Thanks so much for the recommendation!

    Reply

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