Clever + Silly = waste of time and paper.
A ridiculous book, masquerading as something intelligent and thought provoking. There are plenty of far better books that raise issues of totalitarianism, censorship versus free speech, superstition versus science, loyalty to friends and family versus loyalty to the state, the power of language etc in more enlightening, entertaining and less gimmicky ways. I realise my opinion is very much a minority one, so perhaps I'm overanalysing and taking it too seriously.
*** SPOLIERS BELOW ***
The book is set in the present day on a fictitious island, where they venerate Nollop, who devised the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” as the shortest sentence using all the letters of the alphabet without resorting to proper nouns and abbreviations. That irritated me from the start, as you can obviously reduce it by two letters just by changing it to “A lazy dog”.
Anyway, this sentence is on Nollop’s statue and when a letter falls off, the island council decree that it is a sign from Nollop that that letter cannot be used in speech or writing. We are expected to believe that a culture that was built on reverence for the written word destroys all its libraries overnight because one letter fell off a statue (what sort of important statue has letters glued on, rather than carved?). The punishments are harsh for individuals too – exile for a third offence. Of course, gradually other letters fall off, and they are banned too, hampering communication and creating a culture of fear.
The story is told via correspondence between islanders: a contrivance to make it easier to tell and demonstrate the story and perhaps related to the fact this is the first novel of a playwright, although you sometimes have to glance ahead to see who a letter is from, as most of the characters write in a similar style. As Dunn conveniently bans rare letters first (Z, Q, then J), it’s not till half way through that you really notice much difference in style, other than the odd awkward neologism, e.g. birth-anniversary. Later on, they are allowed to use letters that sound roughly similar, but only in correspondence, e.g. phewgitiph for fugitive.
Presumably to add some much needed excitement to the story, an arbitrary deadline is set to devise an even shorter pangram and thus disprove the council’s theory. Pretty pointless when there is at least one perfectly grammatical and shorter pangram that is common knowledge, so it was just a case of waiting for it to crop up, as it duly did. Their perseverance was impressive but ultimately irrelevant: it was the serendipitous wish of an alcoholic falling off the wagon that saved them.
A weak love story is included, but that doesn’t really add much excitement either.
It's a totalitarian regime with a quasi theocratic motive rather than a socio-political-economic one. In fact we learn surprisingly little about the politics of Nollop. The other big subject that is raised but not addressed is race. In the introductory definitions, Dunn mentions “black and white citizens” (it’s 20 miles from S Carolina) and says it used to be called Utopiana, but I don’t think race is ever mentioned again. I’m not even sure which characters are which race, yet in a divided and disintegrating society, mightn’t any racial tensions, however minor, be exacerbated? And even if not, people’s colour might affect their feelings about whether or not to flee to the mainland. If he doesn’t use it in the story, I don’t know why he mentioned it at all.
In the first twenty pages or so, Dunn shows off by littering the text with obscure words (such as detachation, multype writudes, empyrean, extirpated, lucubrating, anserous and aposiopesis). Thereafter, he seems to tire of that game and stick to mundane words, until the second half when the vocab finally becomes somewhat constrained and contorted due to the letters that have been prohibited.
Given that the whole book is an exercise in literary exhibitionism, I found the misuse of apostrophes (e.g. Masons Guild, Parents and Teachers Association) and frequent omission of the definite article (e.g. “going to town centre”) inexcusable.
Writing with limitations, whether that be a min or max word count, limited vocabulary or limited letters, using rhyme or whatever can be a worthwhile intellectual exercise for a writer, but that doesn’t mean the result is worth publishing, otherwise we might as well read spelling tests for pleasure.
One could try to interpret profound truths from this book, but frankly I think it would be a waste of time. Read Nineteen Eighty Four, The Trial, Fahrenheit 451, Oryx and Crake, Cat’s Cradle, Riddley Walker, or The Handmaid’s Tale instead etc.