‘Under the Harrow’ by Mark Dunn
Mark Dunn is a remarkably creative writer. He is one of those rare authors where you are equally intrigued by the spark of inspiration that created his novels as by the books themselves. Each of Dunn’s books has some such spark—with Ibid, it was the notion of a novel told entirely in footnotes and in Under the Harrow, his most recent book, it is the creation of a society inspired by Dickens’ novels fostered and preserved in secret in the middle of Pennsylvania. Sound strange? It is. But it’s also inspired.
Told in a rollicking Dickensian syntax described as uniquely “Dinglian,” Under the Harrow tells the story of a community named Dingley Dell that exists in near-total isolation. After some misadventures with rudimentary navigational equipment, the residents of Dingley Dell think they are somewhere in Pennsylvania, or perhaps Japan or maybe Spain. The first turns out to be correct as a large plot to keep Dingley Dell secret (and then remove Dingley Dell from the picture entirely) is revealed through various Dinglians’ contact with “terra incognita,” i.e. our boring old 21st-century world.
While a little tough to get into, Under the Harrow benefits greatly from long, uninterrupted reads that allow you to immerse yourself in Dunn’s created world. The consuming details that make up Dingley Dell, from vocabulary to industry to geography to grammar, are stunning and Dunn’s thoughtful inventiveness is almost as entertaining as the plot itself. Marathon reading is also encouraged by Harrow‘s sheer size—at nearly 600 pages, the book’s heft helps foster a sense that it should be read at home in a comfy armchair for hours at a time with a pot of tea by your side.
But even setting aside the stylistic unity of the book, the plot and characters are great, if admittedly a little Dickensian in their black-and-white nature. All the characters have fears, dreams, and motivations, but most remain pretty obviously good or bad guys, even allowing for variations in personality. Meanwhile, the plot itself is interesting for both the invented history of Dingley Dell and the unraveling of its present. Dunn does an excellent job of revealing just enough at just the right moments, which helps speed along a lengthy story.
And (slight spoiler-alert) Dunn is also brave enough to leave his ending equivocal. The entire story is told, and at length, but in the end it turns out that it was just the preface to another, likely even stranger and more painful, one. You’re left to wonder what could possibly happen next and come to the conclusion that probably nothing terribly uplifting. Something precious was destroyed, but somehow it’s just another ordinary day. And leaving his characters to lead ordinary lives is the inevitable, but somewhat cruel, ending Dunn chooses to leave unspoken.
Under the Harrow was a real surprise and delight to discover during an amble through my local library’s fiction section. I somehow always forget how original Dunn is, but I won’t make that mistake again. I recently picked up his much-lauded Ella Minnow Pea at a thrift shop and I am hugely looking forward to it.
In the meantime, I have fond memories of Dingley Dell to tide me over. Because, after reading this book and soaking up its stunning breadth and depth of detail, you’ll feel like it actually existed and you were actually there. And that last piece of magic—the one that allows you to feel the exact same way as the characters in the book feel by the end—is Dunn’s final gift to his readers.