I read Ella Minnow Pea right before Embassytown, actually, but I like to hold off writing up book club reads until after the club's met...nothin' shakes out my thinking like a solid book nerd confab. 'Twas an unexpected serendipity reading these two so close to each other, though, as they both play out thought experiments in language in darkly fun ways.
Ella Minnow Pea's elegant subtitle is "a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable," which I will now ruin the elegance of by explaining: epistolary just means "in the form of letters" (of course, one can also use emails or texts or instant messages), whereas a lipogram is a piece of writing artificially constrained by not using certain letters. The story also includes several pangrams, sentences written using all the letters of the alphabet, the most famous of which--and that upon which the plot hinges--is "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." Dunn attributes the coining of said phrase to one Nevin Nollop, revered to near godhood on an invented island bearing his last name, somewhere off the coast of South Carolina. Underneath his statue, his economical yet exhaustive sentence is spelled out in tiles--tiles, it turns out, inadequately adhered, for one day the Z falls off. The all-powerful island council takes it as a sign to be yet more careful in their language, and soon the use of the letter is banned in writing and in speech, with the first offense meriting a warning, the second the choice of the stocks or public flogging, and the third outright banishment. Then, a second letter falls...
Since the novel's told through letters, subject to island law, as more of the alphabet becomes verboten, the more carefully worded the missives become. It's a lively project: one imagines Dunn surrounded by lists of words he can no longer use, and often having to write around a common word with a forbidden letter results in awkward beauty, as synonyms are chosen from further afield. When the "d" is lost, Nollop's inhabitants lose the easiest way to express the past tense. And the days of the week. And God.
Yet for all the word-game playfulness, the book is hard to call light-hearted, as it deals with the systematic dismantling of a people's ability to express themselves. Control of language is an attempt to control thought, and it's a very real technique, from extreme examples like Saparmurat Niyazov, former president-for-life of Turkmenistan, whose cult of personality extended to changing the names of the months (April was his mother's name. That alone is wading into a psychological mire on a truly epic scale), to modern marketing's casual appropriation of terms that can render everyday words useless (say, "quality"). Language is pulled in multiple directions: by technology, by respect for the past, by culture and by convenience; it's simultaneously static and dynamic. And I think it's worth fighting for.
[One tiny, tiny nerd quibble: link above goes to the edition I read, the original 2001 hardcover by MacAdam/Cage--it's since been released in paperback by Vintage--and omigosh, I hated the font. It's too jaunty somehow, and way too noticeable, a particular fault in a book where the reader pays so much attention to individual letters. So read the paperback, is what I'm saying.]