If I may steal a locution from the Fug Girls: MarkDunnily played, Mark Dunn.
Mark Dunn, as some of you may recall, is the author of Ella Minnow Pea, a delightfully clever satire that avoided the many pitfalls of a comic novel and utterly charmed me in the process. (Short version: It’s an epistolary novel in which letters of the alphabet gradually become verboten, so that the book in its later stages must do without half the alphabet.) Under the Harrow, Dunn’s most recent novel, overcomes its slightly cliched story using sheer charm and thoroughness of invention.
The valley of Dingley Dell is a closed community. Dinglians rarely leave their self-contained valley, and those who do venture into the Outland and make it back alive are invariably insane when they return. The community began with a group of abandoned orphans, left entirely alone by their caregivers with only an Encyclopedia Britannica (9th edition), a Bible, and the complete works of Charles Dickens. On these foundations they built their society. Their knowledge of poetry is based entirely on excerpts quoted in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Their names all come from Dickens characters. Contact with the outside world is aggressively circumscribed. The action all begins when nine-year-old Norman runs away to the Outland, and a woman of the town falls to her death on the streets of Dingley Dell.
You’ve seen variations on this story before (though I can’t say where because it would spoil Under the Harrow as well as the books/films I’d be comparing it to), but this is the Mark Dunn version. Mark Dunn is one of a few authors whose books always make me wonder what it must be like living inside the heads of their creators. (Helen Oyeyemi and Neil Gaiman are two others.) His books are just so fantastically weird. Not dream-weird like Salvador Dali or sweet-weird like Wonderfalls, but a small, matter-of-fact sort of weird. Under the Harrow is so well-constructedly, internally-consistently, endnotedly weird, as to be totally irresistible. If you are a fan of this sort of weirdness, and I so am. Every explanatory endnote on Dinglian life and culture made me giggle like an idiot, so that people scooched away from me on the subway.
Under the Harrow is a lot like Ella Minnow Pea. It has the same sort of charm, the same unruffled and unostentatious peculiarity of setting, and the same type of characters, who are endearingly odd but are little more than vehicles for plot and dialogue. I am not usually one to do without well-developed characters and like it, but Mark Dunn writes so (again I say) charmingly that I somehow didn’t mind much at all.
Thanks to MacAdam Cage for sending me this book to review!