Epistolary Meandering

Title: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker
Author: Tobias Smollet
Genre: Classic Epistolary/Picaresque Novel
Pages: 392
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This reminded me of a slightly less silly The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. In both of them, the titular character is not the protagonist for the majority of the book (in this book, he isn’t even the narrator!), in both of them the plot is pretty minimal (though this book has a bit more), and in both of them the humor is a bit rude (Tristram Shandy more bawdy & Humphry Clinker more gross).

The plot (such as it is) follows the curmudgeonly (but good-hearted) Welshman, Matthew Bramble, and his household as they play the tourist from Bath up through parts of Scotland and home again. The story is told through letters from various members of the party, each with their own voice. Plot threads include acquiring a new servant (the eponymous Humphry Clinker), a secret romance, and a straight-laced old aunt’s desperate attempts to catch a man. The eccentric characters and ridiculous situations along the way are fairly entertaining, but there were places where it really dragged. I have the feeling that a more thorough understanding of the era and knowledge of the places they visit would make this an even more enjoyable book. Overall, not a bad read, but I can’t see ever bothering to read it again.

Also, I am using this for the Travel or Adventure Classic category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.

Whimsical Dystopia

Title: Ella Minnow Pea:
A Novel in Letters
Author: Mark Dunn
Genre: Dystopia?
Pages: 208
Rating: 5 of 5

In my experience, novels that are considered epistolary, experimental, or dystopian have a good chance of being pretentious self-indulgence and/or derivative drivel. Ella Minnow Pea delightfully combines all three of these into a whimsical dystopia (who knew there was such a thing?).

The small island nation of Nollop is most famous for being the home of Nevin Nollop, the man who came up with the pangram The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. When a letters falls off of the monument to the miraculous sentence, the ruling council outlaws its use in spoken or written language…and other letters soon follow. This is obviously the will of Nevin Nollop speaking from beyond the grave, and those who break the law face dire consequences!

These absurd decrees and their effects upon society are discussed and reflected in the letters (as in epistles) that comprise the novel. The letters are to and from the 18-year old Ella Minnow Pea and her family and friends. The author’s skill in avoiding more and more letters (of the alphabet) as he writes is truly impressive. The one complaint I have about the novel is that, in the beginning, the characters all have nearly the same voice and vocabulary, making it hard to tell them apart.

The story as a whole serves as a nice commentary on censorship, totalitarian government, and speculation-based but fanatical ideology. Unlike most dystopias, this book is mostly light, hopeful, and just a little bit silly. It is currently my favorite fiction of the year, and you should go read it if you haven’t.

 

In other news, the reason I haven’t posted anything in longer than usual (and I know I’m already pretty sporadic) is that I’ve been up in Michigan interviewing for a new job, and things are looking very positive. There are still a few hoops to jump through, but there is a very good chance that within a month or two we’ll be moving to somewhere closer to family, better for my wife’s health, and more financially stable!