Revenge of Etaoin Shrdlu

Ella Minnow Pea

A book of letters, a novel without letters. What happens to human beings when their vocabulary is restricted, arbitrarily, one letter at a time? Such is the predicament of the inhabitants of Nollop, founded by the inventor of the Lazy Dog sentence, when letters begin falling off the great monument to Nevin Nollop. Books are confiscated and burned, to rid themselves of the Z that their founder has suddenly disdained from beyond the grave. And as the glue on the letters perishes further, so does their language and their freedoms. Those who speak words with the banned letters are flogged and eventually deported. Only the authorship of a pangram to rival Nollop's great sentence can save the island from an imposition of silence. Can Ella and her band of rebels put one together in time?

Most fascinating in the novel is the subtle development of the language during the imposition of greater and greater strictures. Whether Dunn intended it or not, the tortures that language undergoes are chilling. The loss of Q, Z and J cause short words to be struck out and replaced by Latinate counterparts: long, flowery archaisms. But eventually constituents of these longer words drop out of the sky, and out of common, legal use; some can be replaced, but a pidgin develops, a combination of grammatical tricks and permitted misspellings. An announcement of a death---“Mie phrent Georgeanne perisht last night phrom let poisoning”---is turned from bathetic to pathetic, and this makes it all the more heartrending: such things are happening, and the words soon do not exist even to mourn, let alone protest. Society breaks down.

As a moral tale Ella Minnow Pea is thumpingly obvious in its message: state control over free speech leads to social decline and is the thin end of the wedge of totalitarianism. But as a lipogram it has a dynamism and fearfulness that the circumlocutions of A Void lack, and the central trick contributes to the tension and excitement rather than detracting from it. While the plethora of characters often makes it difficult to tell who is addressing whom, this study of the decline of such an epistolary society---Amos even leaves a note for his wife when she's in the bath---is a lesson well learnt, and a story well told.