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!

  • Oh, this sounds like a book that I would love, and the fact that Dickens plays such a huge part in the narrative makes me so excited to read this one! I love weird books, and though I own Ella Minnow Pea, I haven’t read it yet. I am glad to hear that this book was such a success with you, and I look forward to reading it for myself!

    • I hope you like it as much as I did! I don’t even like Charles Dickens, and I found the Dickens references in this book completely charming. It sort of made me want to love Dickens, but I still don’t, I fear.

  • Ooh, I quite liked Ella Minnow Pea and hadn’t realized that Dunn had a new book out. Now I know! Excellent.

    • I know, I had no idea this book was out until I saw it in the independent bookstore in Soho. And I was so excited! He’s only written a few books, but the two I’ve read have both been terribly clever and fun.

  • I haven’t even read Ella Minnow Pea yet, and you have me wanting to read both!

    • I hope you like them both! Ella Minnow Pea is my favorite of the two, but I’m partial to word games, and not so fond of Dickens. I wished I knew Dickens better when I was reading Under the Harrow.

  • Okay, this book sounds really cool. But! Why must it always be Dickens’ books that gets left in a pseudo-dystopic society?!

    I just (sort of just, anyway) read Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, which had Dickens’ books the only books available in a really horrible little living area (“town” is too kind). And I’m sure there are other books that do the same, though I can’t think of any right now. But anyway, what is it about Dickens that makes people want to leave his books sitting around deserted islands and abandoned hospitals and whatnot, and what is it about Dickens that people find them and then end up obsessing over those books for decades? They couldn’t have chosen a nice Alexandre Dumas or a Jane Austen or even a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle instead?

    lol. 😛

    • *laughs* I’d never heard of that Evelyn Waugh book! That’s funny. I suppose Dickens makes a good set of “only” books because they promote good morals and there are a lot of them and they are long. When Oscar Wilde petitioned wildly to be permitted more books than just the Bible when he was in jail (poor old Oscar Wilde!), as I recall, they sent him Dickens. And that was all he had. The Bible and Charles Dickens. I’d have gone insane.

      • I think you might actually like A Handful of Dust; if you can get it at the library you might want to check it out. It’s funny and horrific and full of Modern Characters.

        Shakespeare would be SO much better to leave sitting around somewhere than Dickens. At least with Shakespeare you could recruit people into doing the plays, and then you’d have a bit more entertainment.

  • I am also a fan of this sort of weirdness and I can’t believe I haven’t yet read something by Mark Dunn, so onto the list it goes.

  • How interesting – I wondered where Mark Dunn would go after Ella Minnow Pea, which I did enjoy, although its illogical elements troubled me a bit. It’s funny how author’s imaginations often seem to create variations on a theme. Closed communities with crazy rules are clearly his thing, but nothing wrong with that!

  • I still need to read Ella Minnow Pea! And then I’ll read this. And then I’ll read the 500,000 other books I still need to read!

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