Forget what you've heard about Jay Leno's new courtesy or the special sensitivity on "Saturday Night Live." War and threats of war breed good satire. Like heroism and sacrifice, irony is one of humanity's remarkable responses to national crusades.
It's far too early, of course, to spot the writer who will capture America's battle against terrorism with another "Catch-22" or "M*A*S*H," but whenever nations are bent to a great cause, a few prickly wits kick back against the attendant restrictions of civil rights, abuses of language, and claims of moral purity.
Mark Dunn has gotten us off to a good start. His novel, "Ella Minnow Pea" is the first political satire of the 21st century, and, appropriately, it's a kinder, gentler satire. In fact, he calls it a "progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable," a subtitle that must have sent the marketing folks into a panic.
The story is told entirely through letters between citizens of Nollop, an island nation off the coast of South Carolina. The peaceful Nollopians live quiet, old-fashioned lives, without the trappings of modern technology. In this hyper-literate society, they jot off notes and letters to one another as readily as we pick up the phone or send off e-mail - or even yell into the next room.
They're all devoted followers of Nevin Nollop, the late genius who wrote that pangram hated by struggling new typists: "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." A statue in the center of town testifies to their respect for the man who managed to use every letter of the alphabet in a single sentence.
Trouble starts one day when a little girl notices the letter Z has fallen from the monument. Confronted with "the la y dog," the five-member town council convenes "with leapdash urgency to grasp sign and signal from this sudden and unexpected detachation." Most of the town assumes the letter fell off because its 100-year-old glue finally gave up, but the council announces the loss is a sign from Nollop that only they can interpret: "The letter Z should be utterly excised - fully extirpated - absolutively heave-ho'ed from our communal vocabulary!"
Immediately, no one may speak a word containing a Z, and no one may write or read words containing a Z. And don't try replacing it with an *sterisk - the council is way ahead of you. But how inconvenient would it be, really, to avoid "this only marginally important letter"? Zeke must change his name (he chooses Prince-Valiant-the-Comely), and Ella can no longer speak of "the topaz sea," but otherwise, it just requires a little special care, a workable burden, the kind of minor annoyance that good citizens should endure for the good of the nation.
Then Q falls off. Then J.
You see where this is going.... With each new alpha-elision, good citizens struggle to expand their vocabularies, even to make up new words. They're trapped in a life-or-death game of Scrabble. Soon, the library contains only record albums and picture books. The choir just hums. Ducks are sent packing - no more quacking. With the loss of D, constructing the past tense becomes impossible, and history vanishes. People who break the law face a three-strike policy that ends in banishment. Patriotic citizens - from either political calculation or pious temperament - eavesdrop to catch their neighbors using the illicitabeticals.
Dunn has produced something between a crossword puzzle and a witty political allegory. Once the council has declared itself the only legitimate interpreter of their leader's wishes, all opposition to their increasingly ridiculous edicts is heresy. Honoring the founder, who told his followers, "Love one another, push the perimeter of this glorious language," becomes the justification for repression of all kinds.
Of course, there are acts of civil disobedience, but it's the nature of oppressive regimes to render all acts of resistance ridiculous or futile. A banished newspaper editor publishes one last edition recording the conversation between two bees. A family holds "aloft large cardboard containers of a certain recently outlawed brand of American oatmeal." The island's brain drain ensures that fewer bright people remain to object.
As a playwright, Dunn has developed a good ear for ruffled programs and bored coughs. No matter how sympathetic we might feel for these harassed citizens, there is, after all, a limited appeal to reading notes like this toward the end: "I am a persister, an ootlaster. No more trepitation 4 me. Onlee tetermination!" Fortunately, he keeps the fable rushing along, sprinkled with notes of kindness that demonstrate not just the ingenuity of these people, but the indefatigable nature of affection, even when the V in "love" is forbidden.
There's the whiff of a classic about "Ella Minnow Pea." It's lighter than those high-school standards "1984" or "Brave New World," but even when only LMNOP remain, it's touched by sweetness. That's truer perhaps to the alphabetic range of human nature.
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Mark Dunn MacAdam/Cage 205 pp., $22