Hating Will Shortz/Cleverness/”Ella Minnow Pea”

“Everybody’s clever nowadays” -Oscar Wilde

Clever is a difficult thing. It’s fairly easy to write something without being clever at all. We’re going to have to define our terms a little bit here: on it’s surface, clever is a synonym for ‘smart’— but when I hear the word, I tend to think of something that’s attempting to lord over you with it’s smartness— there’s an implied smugness to it. 

For example, I cannot stand the Sunday puzzle on NPR, and by extension, I have grown to hate Will Shortz, the “NPR Puzzlemaster” and apparently the New York Times crossword editor. The Sunday Puzzle is always something like “take a common word for opera hat, then rearrange the letters, add three vowels, subtract one consonant, and you will have a different word for opera hat”. The puzzles are reliant on a kind of willful obscurity; there’s also a specific kind of inner language to them. On the occasions I do manage to solve them, I don’t feel I’ve learned anything or improved anything. I’ve just managed to think the way Will Shortz does, which isn’t something I set out to do. 

I don’t mind doing some work when I read— I’d hope that’s clear by now if you have been reading my other entries. It’s ok for an author to expect a reader to put in some time; figuring things out— be it William Gaddis’ radical approach to dialogue, Cormac McCarthy’s use of a sort of flat affect, or Herman Melville’s asking his reader to sort out meaning in what read like encyclopedia entries, these are fine for me. Asking me to crack a code or decipher puzzles to understand what you’re writing, however, and I’m probably not going to finish (unless there are quick and easy answers online). Something like “Cain’s Jawbone” is anathema to me. 

There’s another category as well— books in which there’s a focus on the writing itself. Where the *form* of the book is integral to the story. There are a few famous “lipograms”— novels which eschew specific letters. “Gadsby”, which was self published, and is apparently a kind of odd triumph in that the letter “e” is avoided entirely and is also mind-meltingly dull— I can only go with what I have read *about* the book, as I have not read it. It’s an exercise which strikes me as Will Shortzian rather than Gaddisean. It’s ‘clever’. 

All of this is a lengthy way of saying I went into “Ella Minnow Pea : A Novel in Letters” fully prepared to hate it. It’s an epistolary novel (“a novel in letters…” GET IT?) and it’s a lipogram, and it’s plot concerns itself with a pangram. I was reaching for my bottle of haterade as I cracked the metaphorical spine of the book. It’s an impressive collection of clever ideas. I’ll further admit to a prejudice against epistolary novels. They’re either going to be collections of letters which are not like letters actual people write, or the author will try for realistic letters, which are, frankly, kind of boring. 

“Ella Minnow Pea” goes for the former; the letters primarily exist to advance the plot, and given the plot, it actually makes a kind of sense. The book takes place on a fictional island nation “Nollop”, a place without reliable phones or internet (they were knocked out in a Hurricane sometime prior), who’s claim to fame is Nevin Nollop, the alleged inventor of the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”. There is a statue/cenotaph of him in the town square, which contains the phrase. One day, a tile falls from the statue, containing the letter Z. The island’s government decides that this represents ‘the will of Nollop’ and using the letter is banned. Accidental or deliberate use of it results in a set of punishments: caning or stocks for the first offense, and banishment from the island for a second. There is an underlying belief that the pangram Nollop created is somehow perfect. 

As the book progresses, more tiles fall from the cenotaph, and each letter is subsequently banned. At first, it’s a set of minor inconveniences. As the book progresses, the writers of letters are reduced to using phonetic spellings– when “F” is banned, for example, the word “Pheel” is used for “Feel”. It all gets very convoluted, and by the end, it’s difficult to parse. 

The island’s government are largely faceless, but their authority is complete. As they banish people from the island, they take over their property, for example. Their motives appear sinister; but they do offer an out– if someone can come up with a more compact pangram, they will recant.1 The novel concerns itself with the people who remain on the island and their attempts to work out the pangram while dealing with the increasing level of absurdity brought about by having no letters to work with.

There is a very well thought through sense of place at work here. Nollop feels like a genuine place, even though (or perhaps because) we only learn small things about it. Physical descriptions of it are limited (since most of the people in the book are natives, they really wouldn’t spend too much time talking about it), but it develops a real sense of place. And while it’s more parable than realistic tale, the overall story, of a small government body exercising a degree of control over its citizen’s lives based on a strange interpretation of divine will– golly gee you don’t need a map for that, especially in the current climate. 

Yes, there’s cleverness at work, but that cleverness is the direct result of these impositions, so it never feels forced or unnatural. There’s an underlying and awful believability to what occurs. The techniques employed serve the story, they are not the story. That’s a hard thing to accomplish. It’s interesting to note that the author is primarily a playwright; someone used to fleshing out details in a limited form. It served him well, at least here. While the methods employed are sometimes Shortzian, we get a readable, solid narrative. I’m glad to have been wrong about this one. 

1The pangram that solves the dilemma? “Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs”. 

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