As often happens with books, Sinéad recommended this one to me.
Ella Minnow Pea is a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable. As an example of wordplay it’s impressive, but rather more of the author’s attention was focused on the cleverness of his prose and not enough on the depth of his story.
Ella Minnow Pea is an eighteen-year old girl living in the independent state of Nollop, just off the coast of the United States. Nollopians venerates their founder, Mister Nollop, who created the pangram ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’, a sentence which uses all 26 letters of the alphabet in only 35 characters.
Nollopians are a loquacious bunch, given to communicating by letter as a hurricane some thirteen months previous knocked out their phone lines. In any case, that’s the background.
The thrust of the story is that one fine day, the statue of Mister Nollop in Nollopton suffers some damage – one of the letters which was glued to the statue falls off (the z, if you’re wondering).
Believing this to be a sign, the council outlaws the letter in its entirety, in both spoken and written word, not to be used, and not to be replaced with an asterisk, with harsh penalties (public warning! Stocks! Flogging! Banishment! Death!) for those who contravene the will of the almighty Nollop.
Letters, however, continue to fall, presenting more and more of an issue for the citizens of Nollop, who scramble to find a solution.
As it’s an epistolary novel, naturally, the prose itself also omits each letter as it falls. That’s a literary feat which must have taken quite some time to plan out. But unfortunately, that’s the real strength of the book.
And even then, although it’s labelled as a progressively lipogrammatic work, the later chapters are not truly lipogrammatic as they replace sounds with homophones – a necessity to allow the work to continue, true, but then a mislabelling of the novel.
The story considers a lot of issues – it encompasses two love stories, alcoholism, totalitarianism, the decline of society and a bunch of other things – but they all pale in comparison to the author’s fascination with his own cleverness. The focus of the book truly is the wordplay, and the plot is merely a mechanism to allow the author to display his (admittedly pretty impressive) manoeuvring around the absence of multiple letters. The further along one gets, though, the more the grammar and sentence structure suffers. This could be explained by the laziness of the nollopians themselves, of course, but given the verbosity displayed in the opening chapter, it seems rather out of character.
In all, it is an impressive feat of wordplay, but it’s not really anything more than that – the plot is nothing more than a vehicle for the progression of lipograms. It’s an easy and quick read – I finished it within a day – and probably worth a look if you’re an English nerd who’ll get some sort of lady boner over the verbal gymnastics, but it’s not something which will sit on my shelf waiting for me to pass it on to my beloved daughter.
Besides which, it doesn’t even make sense to venerate Nollop’s pangram – he could have shortened it by two letters simply by changing one of the ‘the’s to an a – A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog is still a pangram, and it’s two characters shorter. Bah.