Penny, n., a novella by Madeline McDonnell, reviewed by Jeremy Behreandt


Penny, n. tells of Penny, a girl who grew up being told she was pretty by her mother. Penny discovers she is not pretty, and at thirty, worries. Worries worries worries. She takes a job at a bar, she meets Guy, the lexicographer. Guy moves in, invents clever, nauseatingly sweet pet names. Then, one day, the dictionary assigns Guy a word:

N       .” He whispered it, his voice caught by a low, sweet fever.

Her own voice came out small. “Why do you keep saying that?”

“Because it’s mine now! I’m going to define it, revise it, I mean.” He took his hands from her waist, busied them at his sideburns. Blinked. “And, jeez, Penny—”

Penny? Had he actually just called her—

“Penny, jeez. You don’t know what an honor this is. It’s such a complex word—the history, the tricky modern usage—and, well, to be the one to revise that—that—woefully inadequate tripe we have now—”

Engrossed by his research, Guy tells Penny, “Some slaves really did love their masters.” Soon, he asks her,

“Anyway, don’t you identify, just the littlest bit? Don’t you think you’re sort of like my little bitty kitty slave?[…]Don’t you think you really are such a very good loyal slave to your nice, nice, kind, white master?”

Thus begins the most vanilla of BDSM relationships. And then…poof. Penny is invited to the second wedding of Bridey, her childhood friend. Penny discovers her love of drink. Penny ruins Bridey’s wedding, tells everyone about the whole ‘slave’ thing. Guy and Penny fly back home, or maybe just Penny. Fin.

The characters are one-dimensional, deliberately so. Penny is determined by her name, was hired at the bar because of it, then determined by Guy’s pet names for her. Penny is not “playful but pliable,” not “funny or fun, just functional.” As for Guy, his background sketch—his lost virginity, his dreams, his therapist—does not round his character so much as prop him up with trivia. Occasionally the story makes hay of his near interchangeability. The flatness doesn’t often bother me, since McDonnell can truly impress on a sentence-level:

Penny still attended tenderly to the words in the songs she sang (we’ll build a little home, just meant for two)—their touching fidelity to formal usage (from which we’ll never roam)—their chiasmi (who would, wouldn’t you?). She loved their simple, tongue-twisting rhymes (either, aye-ther, neither, naye-ther), their similes (naïve as a babe, normal as pie, bromidic and bright as a moon-happy night). And Penny loved these words more now than ever. Because it was September, but she was corny as Kansas in August and she was high as a kite on the fourth of July.

Still, Penny, n. draws its world as though neither Shulaminth Firestone, nor bell hooks, nor insert your feminist of choice here have lived in ours, as though feminism were merely the permission for women to define themselves through serial monogamy rather than through marriage. I can imagine how Penny might choose to abandon her freedom because, for her, a world in which meaning is guaranteed by a master is prettier than a world in which meaning has no guarantor. The practice of freedom for Penny is burdensome and never seems to pay out. And I can understand the popularity in literature—following the Patriot Act, Operation Iraqi Freedom, austerity—of ribbing the local humanist for still believing in progress, individuality, autonomy. But it would be nice if Penny had ambition above and beyond being in a relationship; if she strived, and in either succeeding or failing, awakened my sympathies. (An exceptional moment to this: Penny’s drunken toast to the bride and groom was stomach-churning.)

Furthermore, it is hard to downplay the insensitivity of McDonnell’s provocation. Nor can the baldness of the calculation to provoke for provocation’s sake be ignored. As though consensual sub-dom role-play between two sexually-mature, middle-class, white, heterosexual people was analogous to centuries of chattel slavery. As though Guy’s psychology, which extends little beyond the horizons of his occupation, was entirely governed by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. As though the n word itself was so full of exotic virility that it awakened in whites who studied it not any sense of historical remorse or circumspection but rather a will to mastery. As though the n word was commensurate with ‘slave’; as though the former lost all currency once slavery in America was abolished. As though McDonnell could imagine no more plausible word to use for her plot device. A novella is too short as form, Guy too secondary a character, and McDonnell’s narrative style too wry, too ambivalent toward her characters, to portray with subtlety the descent of a lexicographer who, having been assigned a contested word, decided in his Faustian arrogance to test-run the evolution of its usage by living in microcosm a world which fueled and was fueled by the word.

Which is a shame because I want to love this book so so much. It is small enough to put in my pocket. There’s a portrait on the cover of pretty Penny taking the place of Abraham Lincoln on the penny (charming until you realize how sinister the usurpation of the author of the Gettysburg Address is). The inner flap lists eight definitions of ‘penny’. Sprinkled throughout are delightful illustrations by Benjamin Mackey: “mas·ter /’mæs tər, ‘mɑ stər/, n.” is paired with a mustachioed ring-master leading a teddy-bear in stocks; “worse /wɜrs/, adj.,” with a floating chthonic head attacking a man with its tentacle-jowls. The Icarus figure, mid-flight, strapped into his wings, which illustrates “free·dom /’fri dəm/, n.” is perhaps the most smoothly integrated, as it follows Guy’s statement, “They talk of freedom, but they’re counting on your ignorance! Because you don’t know how confining and lonely freedom really is!” and precedes Penny’s being “lashed” to the mast…er…into seat 4F on the airplane, when her drinking problem really…takes off. Just saying, this is the most stylish book in Rescue Press’s catalogue I’ve yet seen. Kudos to book designer Sevy Perez.

And kudos to McDonnell, too. The writing is fleet and fluffy and playful. The writing is well-wrought without being overwrought. Read aloud, it tickles the tongue. It is everything you’d hope from an Iowa Writer’s Workshop alumna. A hybrid of the academic and the popular, the intellectual weight is waiting unobtrusively for you if you want to take some Adderall and refresh yourself on C-M-C vs. M-C-M’ circulation in Das Kapital and then go read Penny, n. a second time through: as a parable about how a word-cent accrues and sheds value circulating through a language-economy. And, to extend further, how word-cents like ‘master’ and ‘slave’ mutate with new connotations, evolve in value, when exchanged in an isolated, intimate language-economy, only to undergo radical devaluation when a Dionysian Penny reintroduces them to the wider market. Ah, Penny, ever lobbying against Guy’s protectionist, paternalistic policies. Penny, how dare I claim you lack ambition!

Cool as this deconstructionist parable may be, excavating its title is the quickest way to explain my reaction: ‘Penny’ is a proper noun; ‘penny’ is a common noun. For the humanist in me, the personhood of Penny, virtual as it is, matters; theory is not best served through oversimplifying persons so they easily fit inside it. I’m not surprised that Penny can muster no lasting indignation to the n word or ‘slave’, which act to erase the distinction between person and thing, since Penny’s character depends on the distinction not being there in the first place. Whether Penny’s recognition of her reflection in the airplane window in Penny, n.’s final passage is of self-disgust or of her subjecthood or of her objecthood or all of the above, it remains sad, sadly ambiguous and belated:

She could just make out a white blur trapped in the plastic.

A pale, smudged face. Hair, in a brown-yellow halo. And in the center, a small, white mouth.

It moved.

“What is that?” it asked. “What is that?”

I was going to quote Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man here, about opening possibilities for the amelioration of human life, and go on to say that art which opens those possibilities most entice me, but this is long enough already. Here, let me dismount my high horse. If you cared about any of this you’d probably be reading “Thinking Kink” over at Bitch Media, or maybe a review of Django Unchained, instead. So let me conclude by playing as cross-promotional algorithm, which is maybe all a review is worth: if you enjoy Secretary with Maggie Gyllenhaal or Manderlay with Bryce Dallas Howard, I hope you will enjoy Penny, n. as well.

Penny, n. by Madeline McDonnell. Rescue Press. 133 pages. $14.00, paper.

Jeremy Behreandt lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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