March 15, 2003

Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable, by Mark Dunn

I had high expectations for this one, having heard its praises sung by several people in the past. Perhaps this is the reason why I found it to be somewhat anticlimactic. It's a fun read; don't get me wrong. For plot-based reasons that you can read in any review, including the blurb at a popular online bookseller, in each successive chapter of the novel, one or more letters of the alphabet stops being used. An increasing number of circumlocutions are put into use to achieve this, an effect I'm employing here on the sentence level. While this is cute and amusing, and while it is, on the whole, fun to scan, that's about all there is to it. It's progressively lipogrammatic plus epistolary, yes, but re: the last subtitle term, it's rather thin. It is merely a shaggy canine story with a literary veneer. Anyway, go on, peruse it; however, raise not your hopes for meaning. The novel's purpose is thin. Playing with lexemes is all.

I could go on in that mode, with each sentence using only the letters employed in each successive chapter of the book, but I tire of this. I do have a bit more to say, but only to those who have finished the book, it being as spoilerific as it's possible to get. That'll follow at the end of this entry.

Otherwise, what was the typesetter of the hardcover edition thinking? A jarringly informal italic typeface is used throughout. This may have been an attempt to convey the feel of handwritten letters, but that effect is shattered by the use of a non-italic sans-serif face for italics. They should have either stuck with their original typeface and used underlined words for italics, or abandoned the whole idea and used a more conventional typeface from the start. (No "Note on the Type" is provided, by the way. Perhaps this was an attempt to protect the reputation of the typefaces in question.)

Anyway, those who haven't read the book, this is the point to stop reading.

(Major spoilers follow!)

So, it's like this. As I've said above, Ella Minnow Pea is a shaggy-dog story; the author clearly started with the ending and wrote the rest of the novel around it. This is well and good, but I wish he'd done a better job of it. For while the novel in general is a smooth read, when he tries to nonchalantly slip in the punchline, he bobbles it. I found myself reading the key sentence over several times, when I first encountered it, wondering why it seemed so out of place. I did not, at the time, realize that it was a pangram, but something definitely seemed off, if for no other reason than that the word "liquor" had never been used before with reference to the miniature amphorae (nor, I think, in any other connection), even in the two chapters in which that would have been permitted. Dunn really should have established the usage earlier; he didn't; in a book as concerned with words as this one -- and one in which heavy emphasis is placed on the claim that the sentence was a naturally-occurring accidental one -- that definitely qualifies as a screw-up. And even putting aside the "liquor" matter, the sentence in question could have been used more smoothly than it was. And, yes, okay, I'm nitpicking, but this was the one page above all others that Dunn had to get just right, and he blew it thoroughly enough to throw me out of the novel for a bit.

But again, on the whole, I did like the book.

Posted by Shmuel at 10:42 PM