The University of Iowa

Book Review: Madeline McDonnell's 'Penny, n.'

By Denise Jarrott

There is much to love about Madeline McDonnell's novella, Penny, n. First, the book as an object cannot go without mention: it is small, portable, pocket-sized, and impeccably designed. To open it is to discover the joy, frustration and quirk inherent in our language. The inside flaps reveal beautiful (and often terrifying) drawings that correspond with the delineated scenes: an ornate dressing table, anatomical drawings of a tongue and a uterus, a slightly deranged looking pug, a disembodied hand with a scalpel, among others. The fact that the book is beautiful perhaps beckons to the complexity within. To read this short book is an experience both pleasurable and awkward, and McDonnell manipulates these sentiments adeptly within a text that is unmistakably her own.

McDonnell's former position as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary becomes apparent in the story. Penny seeks obsessively to define herself after her one defining quality is destroyed. A thirty year old sometime lounge singer, Penny recovers from her certainty of self by a series of mistakes, revelations, and soul-crushingly awkward moments. The novella begins with a section labeled 'Etymology': Penny's mother deems her "pretty" and so begins the first of many encounters with definition, equally of the self, of others and of words themselves.

"Pretty" segues into "Plain", a word she dives into with abandon: "Plainnnnnn Pennnneeeeeeeeeeeey…the words begin to make a song. A poem, at the very least: Penny composes a heroic line. She repeats it, bleats it, sings it, scans it, takes pride in its lilting but exacting dactylic hexameter. Hello my names  Plain Penny, I have never been pretty!" Though the language is obsessive, gut-wrenching, and strange, it is also strangely familiar: the reader responds bodily to the text: we have all struggled with this uncertainty of definition, and we have all become slave to the power of words: branding, labeling, defining. It is present in our relationships, in what we consume, in who we consider to be an authority.

In a chapter in which Penny meets her other, a lexicographer curiously named Guy, a barrage of names descends upon Penny. She is anything but herself: " 'Apricot', 'Angel-puss', and 'Twinkles'. 'Squidgy' and 'Star-sweeper' and 'Cloth-ears' and 'Duck'…she was a plain-old, plain adult, and yet she could not stop kidding, like a giddy, pretty girl. That word--kid--made new sense." This assault of pet names and near constant re-defining finally gives way to a name Penny wants and does not want, a name that suits her and does not suit her, a name that makes the reader uncomfortable because it perhaps describes us all: slave. With that horrifying, final definition, given to her by the maker of a word's meaning, Penny begins to unravel.

In reading McDonnell's stunning, deliberate, obsessive and gorgeously wrought novella, I could not help but be reminded of the Greek myth of Pygmalion and his beautiful statue, with comes to life though the shaping of marble into a human being that isn't a human being, a creation of the mind that cannot be autonomous. More than simply a cautionary tale, McDonnell recalls how words can be both dangerous and beautiful, and to define oneself or those we love (or want to love) becomes an act both simple and daring.

Madeline McDonnell is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and former lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. Penny, n and her book of short stories There Is Something Inside, It Wants to Get Out are both available from Rescue Press and at Prairie Lights. Her readings can be found here.