Review: Under the Harrow, Mark Dunn

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!

Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn

I actually wrote this review at the end of May – May 19th, if I recall correctly (as of course I unfailingly do) – but I couldn’t post it because I was planning to send a copy of the book to my good friend tim for her birthday (which was May 15th – yes, I’m a bad friend), and I couldn’t remember whether she read this blog or not, but I didn’t want to take any chances.  I wanted her to be joyously surprised by the arrival of her book.

Um, yeah, Ella Minnow Pea is awesome.  I will just detail for you the ways in which it is awesome.

One: It is epistolary.  I love epistolary novels.

Two: It is set in a fictional country that reveres the creator of the useful sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”  This sentence stands written in tiles in the center of town, and when tiles start falling down, the country starts eliminating the fallen letters from their vocabulary.  On the assumption that the creator – Nevin Nollop – is sending a divine message to stop using those letters.

Three: The letter-writers stop using those letters.  Ya heard.  At first it is letters that aren’t awfully useful, like Z and Q, but then it is J (slightly more important) and then it is D (eek! Farewell to past tense!), and K and B and all kinds of things.  I bet that Mark Dunn used his thesaurus A LOT, and also the Search function in Microsoft Word.  Cause holy crap.

Four: Although it is satire about totalitarianism, it is not at all heavy-handed, largely because it is too busy being whimsical.

Five: The residents of the country make a deal with one of the councilmen whereby if they can find a sentence that uses all the letters of the alphabet, and is shorter than Nevin Nollop’s sentence (32 characters altogether), the elimination of fallen letters will cease, and all the banished people can come back home again.


This is a good book for me to send to my friend tim, because she and I are the sort of people who do this all the time.  I feel like at one time when we were chatting online, we stopped using the letter S and replaced it with D in all the wordd we uded.  Derioudly, if you have never replaced a letter with another letter you are midding out.  Hilarity endued.  (Hahahaha, that is still funny.  Midding means poop.)  In high school we learned Morse code and sent each other letters in Morse code, and we are both madly obsessed with finding words that are all standards, meaning that no letter goes above or below the line.  You are allowed to use “i” but it’s sort of cheating, so if you really take pride in it you will find words like savanna and occurrence, rather than words like renaissance and communion.  (Finding words with no standards is trickier.  Egypt works, but only because it’s a proper noun and the E has to be capitalized.

Anyway, you can see how this was an excellent present for me to send to tim.  I am convinced that she will love it.  Other views below:

Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness appreciates its wordy awesomeness
Rebecca Reads loved it in spite of limited characterization, something I hadn’t considered because I was too busy concentrating on keeping my brain from exploding with joy at how brilliant and fun this book was
Fyrefly’s Book Blog, creator of the lovely book blog search I now use, enjoyed how the book made you start watching for forbidden letters and thinking of synonyms
Book Nut fears it was too clever for its own good but enjoyed it
Ace and Hoser Blook thought it was silly.  Not in a good way
On My Bookshelf looooved it
Reading, Writing, and Retirement is reminded of Ladle Rat Rotten Hut which is AWESOME
Reading and Ruminations
Maggie Reads
Confessions of a Book Habitue

Tell me if I missed yours!