Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A Novel Novel

Currently reading: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

This is a curious book. I found it a delightful, yet oddly disappointing, cautionary tale.

Let me explain. The book is labeled a “progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable.”

epistolary, adj. 1. of or associated with letters or letter writing. 2. of, pertaining to, or consisting of letters: an epistolary novel.

lipogram, n. a written work composed of words selected so as to avoid the use of one or more letters of the alphabet.

The novel is set on the fictional island of Nollop, which is 21 miles off the coast of South Carolina. The island is named after Nevin Nollop, the author of the famous pangram (a phrase, sentence or verse composed of all the letters of the alphabet) sentence The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

The novel consists of letters written primarily between Ella (of the title), and her cousin Tassie, but also letters between various other Nollop inhabitants. The crisis comes when the letter “z” falls off of the famous sentence written in tiles at the base of the memorial statue of Nollop. The island’s Council decrees that the fallen letter is a sign from Nollop beyond the grave, and they forbid the use of the letter in any written or spoken form. The punishments are unusually severe and end with banishment upon the third offense.

As the novel progresses and tiles fall from the statue, so do they disappear from the novel and the letters between the characters.

The novel is a good cautionary tale about freedom of expression and the dangers of not acting decisively in defense of that freedom. It is also a great exercise in wordplay and creative language. The letter-writers are all educated and obviously love the language and all its intricacies.

My only complaint is that the novel becomes a bit too bogged down in its own cleverness. The author seems so intent upon his wordplay, that the characters remain two-dimensional and the plot scurries along with only short moments of tension.

I do, however, highly recommend it for teens and for those interested in language. It’s a quick read and packed with beautiful vocabulary and maybe even a few lessons.

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