7 SEPTEMBER 2002, Page 36

The law of the letter

Kevin Jackson

ELLA MINNOW PEA: A NOVEL IN LETTERS by Mark Dunn Methuen, £9.99, pp. 203, ISBN 0413772470 The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog': almost everyone knows that this is — or is anyway believed to be — one of the shortest sentences in the English language to use all 26 letters of the alphabet (although the simple variant 'A quick brown fox .. . ' is shorter still). Not nearly so many know that the technical name for this type of sentence is a pangram; and most of those possessed of such recondite knowledge will probably be members or admirers of the Oulipo, that remarkable Paris-based group dedicated to research and development in the sphere of literary forms. The Holy Grail of the pangrammatists is the isopangram, which uses each letter once and once only; sadly, most of the English examples produced to date read like poor translations from the Martian: `Cwm fjord-bank glyphs vext quiz' or 'Nth black fjords vex Qum gyp wiz.'

Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn's novel, or more exactly fable, begins and ends with a pangram, though it offers itself to the world as an exercise in lipogrammatism, a lipogram being a work of literature that dispenses with one or more letters of the alphabet. (Probably the most famous of all such exercises, and quite the most dazzling, is George Perec's La Dispatition, a full-length novel which gets by pretty well without the letter 'e', as does its still more dazzling English translation, A Void, by Gilbert Adair.) This may sound almost unreadably complex, but the reality is surprisingly straightforward.

Dunn asks us to imagine a small island community, Nollop, located '21 miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina'. At the beginning of his fable, Nollop is a rather agreeable place, dedicated to the liberal arts and named after its native son Nevin Nollop, held to be the inventor of 'The quick brown fox . . . ' For almost a century, the foxy sentence has been proudly displayed on a pedestal over the bust of Mr Nollop, and all is right with the world.

Then begins a terrible sequence of events. One by one, letters start to fall away from the sacred pangram. Interpreting this as the ghostly displeasure of Mr Nollop, instead of weak cement, the island's rulers conclude that their founder is passing sentence, so to speak, on unacceptable letters, and so ban their use on pain of flogging and exile. For a while, life without Zs and Qs proves bearable, but once the crucial vowels and consonants start to plummet, Nollop becomes a living hell of non-communication. There is only one possible solution: the rulers concede that they will lift their proscription if someone manages to discover a pangram just as efficient as Nollop's, thereby showing that the founder was not divinely inspired. The ending is happy.

As will be apparent, Dunn's book is really a fairy story about intolerance and mass hysteria, in the form of a technical exercise. It is a sweet-natured piece, innocent of scenes which could bring a blush to the cheek of any of the planet's few surviving maidens, but the innocence can encompass a mildly irritating naivety: at this late stage (for even the ancient Greeks wrote lipograms), the only point in wilfully skipping letters is to create something quite fresh and funny and prodigious. Dunn, one suspects, either knows little about the Oulipo's awesome feats or expects that his readers won't know or care. But compared to Perec, Ella Minnow Pea is as simple as ABC.