I’ve found the major criticism people have with this short epistolary novel is that, while it has a serious message, that gets somewhat lost in its outrageousness. I counter with this: was Animal Farm not the least bit silly? Did we not laugh disbelievingly, simultaneously horrified, at what those demon pigs were getting up to? It may have been allegorical, but I also don’t think it’s an accident that some of the most memorable stories out there come to us in comedic form.
Mark Dunn’s “Novel in Letters” is a brief exploration of censorship and freedom of speech. Ella and her cousin Tassie live in a small island nation called Nollop, named after the man supposedly behind the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” This point of pride, together with Nollop’s inability to adopt proper technologies and move into the 21st century, means the practice of letter-writing is the main form of communication. It is through these letters that the entire plot is told.
The story begins in the centre of town, where an epitaph displaying the famed sentence was placed a hundred years ago. One by one, alphabetical tiles start falling. Instead of attributing this simple problem to old glue, the town leaders take it as a beyond-the-grave request from their nation’s hero: that everyone stop using these letters altogether. Harsh penalties are enforced as people inevitably slip up and use them anyway. More and more people are being shunned, ratted out, and kicked off the island every day. Nollop quickly devolves into a totalitarian police state, and it’s soon up to Ella and a few others to find a way to turn things around.
What I find most fascinating about this book is how difficult it must have been to write. As letters fall from the epitaph, they also disappear from the novel itself. Even though it may be silly, this is one novel that English-lovers everywhere will enjoy. If I were a high-school English teacher, this would be a fun book to teach. Sure, there may be other novels of the same theme which might be deemed ‘worthier’ of your time (1984, perhaps?), but as a jumping-off point and for sheer linguistic entertainment, Ella Minnow Pea can’t be overlooked.