If you’ve not yet found time for the deft and dark-edged humor of Mark Dunn, add him to the list of must-reads for this year. Dunn has offered us three novels so far–Ella Minnow Pea: a Novel in Letters (2002), Welcome to Higby (2003), and last year’s Ibid: A Life, a Novel in Footnotes.
Start with Dunn’s first book, Ella Minnow Pea. (Sound it out.) Young Ella lives in Nollop, an America-like country named after its native son Nevin Nollop, who created, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” For complicated reasons, Nollop’s council decides to forbid the use of certain letters, more each day. Only by creating another sentence of thirty-two letters or less, using the entire alphabet, can inhabitants throw off the arrogant mantle of illiteracy thrown over them. Young Ella takes up that task, and the book details her progress, as well as the town’s, in a series of letters. It’s a compelling journey, well-told with sound-alikes and creative spellings, sure to interest the word lover.
Welcome to Higby is more of a mainstream novel, detailing the adventures of a variety of strong characters living in the small town of Higby in northern Mississippi. Higbyites have a number of strange quirks, all of which work with their friends’ and relatives’ strange quirks in a very humane and witty send-up of the Southern small town.
By the time this reviewer got to Ibid: A Life I was prepared for anything, and wasn’t disappointed. In Ibid, Dunn creates another strange book premise: himself as the biographer of three-legged Jonathan Blashette, former circus employee, owner of the Dandy-de-Odor-o men’s deodorant company, and humanitarian. In this creative set-up, the only copy of the biography has been accidentally destroyed, leaving only its footnotes, out of which Ibid is formed. Although crude at times, Dunn’s humor is as sharp as always and is filled with pop culture references and historical notes, much like the Woody Allen movies Zelig and Radio Days, which Dunn credits at the end.
I still prefer Ella Minnow Pea, but Ibid has its moments too.