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The Basic Idea
By Amy Sisson

Tepper Isn’t Going Out
By Calvin Trillin Random House, 213 pages, $22.95

Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable
By Mark Dunn MacAdam/Cage Publishing, 205 pages, $22

At first glance, parking and pangrams have little in common. A pangram is a sentence that uses all the letters of the alphabet, the most well-known example being “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Parking, of course, is something about which many urban dwellers must worry. What could a novel about parking, namely Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin, and a novel about pangrams, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, possibly have in common?

Far more than you might think. In fact, I will always link these two books together in my mind. I became aware of them around the same time and wanted to read both for the same reason: their respective premises were so simple that I suspected brilliance. If there’s one thing in the world that writers struggle with, it’s ideas. For writers, then, reading these books is akin to realizing that you could have had a V8.

Tepper, in fact, could possibly win an award for the year’s most basic novel. It tells the tale of Murray Tepper, a man who has became so adept at New York City parking that it has essentially become his hobby. In the evenings after dinner or on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, he takes the car, cruises around until he finds a really good parking spot, puts his money in the meter, and sits and reads the paper. This behavior bewilders Tepper’s wife, not to mention the many drivers who pause by the parking spot, thinking Tepper is about to leave. But Tepper waves them on because he isn’t going out, he’s just enjoying his perfectly legal parking spot.

Naturally, Tepper’s actions start to draw attention. When people begin to recognize him around the neighborhoods in which he parks, they stop to say hello, and find Tepper a sympathetic audience who will listen to their family and work woes. Before long, there’s a line waiting outside his passenger door every Sunday afternoon, and the city’s mayor, Frank Ducavelli (a thinly disguised pre-Sept. 11 Guiliani), begins to resent this bit of disorder in his fiefdom. He sics his legal beagles onto Tepper by making them search for obscure laws that would prevent parking in legal parking spots. The city begins to take Tepper’s side against the mayor they’ve dubbed “Il Duce,” and watches to see how far the battle of wills will go.

In spite of the increasing complexity of Tepper’s situation—he just wants to park, after all—the novel remains refreshingly simple and even pedestrian in its language. The book pokes clever but gentle fun at New Yorkers, especially its politicians. The people who go to Tepper for advice (which Tepper never actually gives; his devotees convince themselves Tepper has helped them) are earnest about their problems, such as the fish-store counterman who bemoans the fact that he can’t slice lox as thin as his predecessor, who was a veritable artist of his trade.

Tepper ends on precisely the right note, with a hint of a twist that makes you wonder for just a few moments. Ella Minnow Pea, while more straightforward, also wends its way to a fitting end. Ella’s setting is vastly different than Tepper’s everyday New York, however: It takes place on the fictional island nation of Nollop, some 20 miles off the coast of the Carolinas. According to a brief, dictionary-style preface, Nollop was established as a quasi-communal society by dispossessed Southern Americans in the 1840s. Originally named Utopianna, the country changed its name in 1904 to honor citizen Nevin Nollop, who invented the popular pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

After this very brief setup, the entire novel takes the form of letters written by the island’s inhabitants to each other. The first letter, from a young woman named Ella Minnow Pea to her cousin Tassie, relates a grave event: The letter “Z” has fallen from the tiles spelling out the famous sentence at the base of Nollop’s memorial statue. The island’s council of elders immediately declares this a sign from the long-deceased Nollop. Nollopians have become too complacent in their literary heritage, the council proclaims, and henceforth must strike the use of “Z” from their language, with severe penalties for infractions.

Surely you can guess where this is heading. Just as the island’s residents resign themselves to life without Z, Q follows suit. Are these indeed signs from Nollop, or is the fixative holding the tiles simply giving out? As tiles begin dropping with increasing frequency, Ella leads her neighbors in an underground attempt to prove that Nollop may not have been so linguistically gifted after all.

Alas, the tiles keep dropping, resulting in the “progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable” of the book’s exquisitely descriptive subtitle. A lipogram is a sentence that purposely excludes a given letter or letters of the alphabet, while an epistolary book is one written entirely in the form of letters. The island’s fictional nature and the rapidity with which events happen result in a story that is more fable than novel. And this is the only way this book could have been written: Dunn gives us a society prone to fancy and old-fashioned letter-writing, a society whose alphabet is being quickly whittled away, with the result that the book itself must make do first without Z, then without Q, and so on. The wordplay is delicious. What fun and frustration Dunn must have experienced writing this story.

Ella’s language and form, then, are about as different from Tepper’s as they can get, but still these books have much in common. They point out the absurdity of public officials who insist on making mountains out of molehills. They reflect on the concept of personal freedom. They tell lovely, lively, sophisticated little stories in a mere 200 pages, a welcome change from 800-page Stephen King or epic fantasy novels. Even their respective covers are simplicity itself. Would-be novelists would do well to read Tepper and Ella and observe that quantity does not outweigh quality, and that complexity is not necessary for success.

 

 


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