All reviews copyright 1984-2012 Evelyn C. Leeper.
ELLA MINNOW PEA by Mark Dunn:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/10/2003]
Mark Dunn's ELLA MINNOW PEA is subtitled "a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable." It is set on the island nation of Nollop, whose founder wrote the famous panagram "A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," which is inscribed on a plinth in the center of the capital city. One day, the letter 'Z' falls off and the council decides this is a sign that means that henceforth no one should use that letter in either speech nor writing. A few weeks, later 'Q' also falls, and so on. The book is a combination of lipogrammatic writing (i.e., writing that avoids one or more letters), a cautionary tale against losing one rights a bit at a time, and also a criticism of theocracies which claim to know the will of God. However, the last two are a bit obvious, and the first starts out clever, but becomes a bit of a cheat. (At some point, the council decides that people can write words that had the forbidden letters by spelling them differently--e.g., when they can no longer use 'U', they can write "yewniverse".) There's also a secret underground trying to construct a sentence shorter than "A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" that uses all the letters of the alphabet, because if they can, that will prove that Nollop was not divine, and the falling of the tiles shouldn't be taken as divine signs. I will leave the details of the attempt for the reader to discover. (This is in a broad sense fantasy, by the way, and I discovered it through a review in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION.)
To order Ella Minnow Pea from amazon.com, click here.
IBID: A LIFE / a novel in footnotes by Mark Dunn:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/17/2004]
Mark Dunn's IBID: A LIFE / a novel in footnotes (ISBN 1-931561-65- 6) is just what it says. The introductory material explains how the actual book was accidentally destroyed, and only the footnotes are left. (There was, of course, no such book.) The book was/is about a three-legged man and his life. The problem is that the gimmick wears thin quickly, and the view of his life is as one seen through a strobe, with brief unconnected vignettes that were footnoted. Dunn's earlier book ELLA MINNOW PEA, in which gradually each letter of the alphabet is discontinued, transcended its gimmick by having a fairly straightforward story to carry it. But in IBID: A LIFE the anecdotes are too bizarre and the story too fragmented to keep my attention.
To order Ibid: A Life from amazon.com, click here.
UNDER THE HARROW by Mark Dunn:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/12/2012]
UNDER THE HARROW by Mark Dunn (ISBN 978-1-59692-369-0) by Mark Dunn is hard to describe without some spoilers. However, much of what may seem like spoilers is guessable fairly early on, and is revealed in the first third of the book. The spoilers may be more of the works I discuss that it seems to have borrowed from (been inspired by).
We begin in the valley of Dingley Dell. For most people these days, this will conjure up a "Monty Python" sketch, but the original reference is to Charles Dickens's THE PICKWICK PAPERS, and that is where the name has come from. In fact, this isolated valley seems to have comes straight out of Dickens, but the 2003 timestamps at the beginning of each chapter would appear to make that impossible. We eventually learn that this valley has built its society, founded entirely by orphan children abandoned there in the 19th century, around the few books left to them: the Bible, the Encyclopedia Britannica, an atlas, a dictionary, and the works of Charles Dickens. But how (and why) it has remained isolated all this time takes a bit more explanation.
The action of UNDER THE HARROW takes place in 2003, but was published in 2010, and I found myself thinking of many earlier works that this seems to be similar to. There is M. Night Shyamalan's THE VILLAGE (2004), where the set-up is similar--but the explanation is different. There is GALAXY QUEST (1999), where a society uses fictional works as their guideline, but in UNDER THE HARROW they know that Dickens's works are fiction. And the final parallel is to the G.E. TRUE episode "The Last Day", in which what appears to be a normal American town [SPOILER] turns out to be an entire town constructed and populated in the Soviet Union to train their spies on how to infiltrate the United States. [END SPOILER]
Dunn attempts to explain how all the problems inherent in the premise are solved. Why, for example, do so few people try to leave Dingley Dell? How do they manage to be self-sustaining? And so on. The book is a combination of puzzle and thriller, written in large part in Dickensian English, and will appeal primarily to those who are comfortable with that style.
As a side note, Dunn does not write normal books. His ELLA MINNOW PEA was progressive lipogrammatic writing (i.e., writing that avoids one or more letters). And his "IBID: A LIFE / a novel in footnotes" is just what it says--the introductory material explains how the actual book was accidentally destroyed, and only the footnotes are left. In 2004 this was entirely imaginary; in 2009 Justin Gawronski discovered that he owned just such a book when Amazon deleted his Kindle copy of 1984, leaving him with only the footnotes he had made on it.
To order Under the Harrow from amazon.com, click here.