Ella Minnow Pea
On New Year’s Day 2011, I was celebrating the holiday as I usually do, with a dinner with friends. I was expressing my fondness for George Perec’s A Void, as I’ll only discuss literature at the table after I’ve had a few drinks. Perec’s novel has much to recommend it but it is best known because no words containing the letter E appear in the book. As A Void might put it, it’s a book minus a most common part of our lingua franca, using synonyms and substitutions with a smooth skill to portray a story of haunting loss.
Our cute waitress chimed in that A Void sounded similar to Ella Minnow Pea and that I might like it, too. She gave a quick overview that sounded intriguing: the novel is a series of letters written by people who live in Nollop, a sovereign island nation not far off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop is named after Nevin Nollop, creator of the sentence “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” which is impressive in that it utilizes every letter of the alphabet with few repetitions. There is a statue of Nollop along with the alphabet and his phrase on the island. The respect for him is so strong that, when the letter Z falls off the statue pedestal, it is ruled as a sign and stricken from the language, with escalating punishments for its use. The edict is treated as a joke. How useful is Z, anyway? Who will miss it? But as other letters begin to fall off and are similarly ruled illegal to use, more and more people are punished for their slips of tongue and others try to find a way out of their predicament even as language becomes more and more restricted.
It’s a clever conceit and the book is consistently inventive. When the letter D is outlawed, all days of the week have to be renamed (“Sunshine” for “Sunday”) and people are forced to say things like “birth-anniversary” and completely give up the past tense. Still the language flows and the little jokes you catch don’t detract from the pull of the story. It’s as a depiction of totalitarianism that Ella Minnow Pea works best. I would say "satire" but I think it's a bit beyond that. It shares a the sense of dread found in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Characters are forced to live under what they know to be arbitrary and ridiculous rules but have little hope to change them. As letters continue to drop from the pedestal and from usage you start to realize that this can’t possibly end well.
Perec’s A Void was also about loss, but there the characters didn’t know what was missing, they could only sense something was gone. Everyone in Ella Minnow Pea is all too aware of what is being taken away from them. It’s profoundly unsettling to read these literate characters ultimately reduced to writing sentences like “no got to rummage” and “we eat together tonight, yes?” to avoid punishment.
I can’t imagine an American writing a better satire of what it’s like to live under totalitarianism. It’s an amusing, entertaining, and disturbing little book.
I’ve been back to the restaurant but haven’t seen the cute waitress again.