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Ibid: A Life by Mark Dunn

By Brian Prisco | Books | May 11, 2009 |

By Brian Prisco | Books | May 11, 2009 |

Have you ever read a first novel that was so amazing, so mindblowing, that you swore to read everything that writer put out from that day forth, no matter how bad the efforts turned out to disappoint? Stephen Chbosky went all Hollywood on me, never following up the promising Perks of Being a Wallflower. Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck-Up was awesome, but I’ve been lukewarm on his many follow ups, finding his slacker material a bit wanting. Stephen Jaramillo’s Going Postal was good, and Chocolate Jesus was hilarious, but The Scoundrel kind of ended his career. And I’m still waiting for Shawn McBride to follow up Green Grass Grace, a novel that’s so awesome I want to take it behind the pregnancy and make it a middle school.

Such was the case with Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea, an epistolary novel of such astounding wordplay, it was like kung fu fighting a Scrabble board. The premise is that a small town lauds the written word so much — particularly the glorious economy of the sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” containing all twenty six letters of the alphabet — that they build a statue to it in the center of town, and forbid telephones from existing, choosing only to communicate through letters. Soon, tiles featuring the letters begin falling from the statue, shattering, and thus the town decides to outlaw the use of said letters. As more tiles begin to fall, the letters are then made verboten. Being an epistolary romance — written entirely in letters — the characters begin to be limited in which words they can use. The loss of Q isn’t terrible. But R’s? E’s? It’s brilliant and astounding, and I looked forward to following Dunn’s career.

His follow up, Welcome to Higby, captured the small town charm without the clever wordplay. It reminds us why Jean Shepard is awesome and Garrison Keillor is boring as fuck. Ibid is his third novel, and sounded like a return to form. The premise is that Dunn was working on a biography of Jonathan Blashette, a three-legged entrepreneur who created a deodorant company, but the manuscript was destroyed, and so all that remain are the footnotes. It’s a clever premise, if you’re willing to suspend disbelief that an author other than our dear departed DFW would write a 252 page collection of footnotes.

The concept of an inside-out bio is neat, only introducing the events through tertiary snippets and asides, but it wears thin after a while. It’s clever but eventually, the reader kind of yawns, since the subject is spectacularly interesting, and the story fades. It’s like listening to Lake Wobegon, where you just sort of hum, mildly amused, but you’re not really drawn in. It’s got this Smuckers folksy charm, but soon, you just kind of check your watch, or turn to another book. Fortunately, it’s short, and so it’s over pretty quick, but it doesn’t ever make you pine for the original manuscript.

Dunn’s got a new book due out sometime this year, and I’ll get around to reading it sometime, but really, it’s almost impossible for him to outwow me beyond his fascinating first. It’s like watching DiCaprio after seeing ? He’ll never be better than that. Ever.

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