Losing letters

The 2001 novel Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn depicts a town in which a totalitarian government begins banning letters – from the town and from the novel itself.

Serg!o, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s no secret that I love the branch of experimental fiction known as constrained writing – I described it in detail in pi poetry. One of the first posts on this site was about the remarkable novel A Void, which is a book written entirely without the letter E. Mark Dunn’s 2001 book Ella Minnow Pea takes this to extreme ends.

The novel is set on a fictional Atlantic Island that was home to the (also fictional) inventor of the pangram phrase “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” The government of this island has erected a large statue of the inventor with his famous phrase attached underneath… but then the letter Z falls off the monument.

The island council hastily convenes, and decides that it is a sign from above that they should stop using that letter. It is banned from being written anywhere on the island – including in the letters between the residents that form the text of the novel. In other words, in each subsequent chapter Dunn does not use the letter Z.

That doesn’t sound like much of a challenge, but then another letter falls off the monument, and another, and another. And as each letter disappears from the phrase, so the increasingly totalitarian council bans its use. The characters must come up with ludicrous linguistic acrobatics to write around the missing letters, producing chapters like this when the D is banned:

I cannot teach. Without that grammatical unifier. It is impossible. I plan to resign tomorrow.

Semicolons are simply not an option. These youngsters are only seven! Young people of such age can’t fathom semicolons!

Nor can I employ an “or” when I want the other one – the one that brings together, not separates.

My brain throbs. I have a hangover. Far too much wine last night.

Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea, p. 76

If they make a mistake (as they sometimes do) they are punished, eventually being banished from the increasingly linguistically impoverished island. The remaining residents fight on, trying to find some way to break the power of the high council.

So why is the novel called Ella Minnow Pea? Well, let’s just say that by the second-to-last chapter there are only five letters remaining on the monument.

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