Book Review: O, Democracy! by Kathleen Rooney
A Novel by Kathleen Rooney
Fifth Star Press, April 2014
Reviewed by Michelle Chan Brown
O, Democracy! challenges in the best way. Intelligently plotted, self-aware and knowing, it refuses to be enamored of its cleverness or satisfied with pointing out the idiosyncrasies of its subject. Kathleen Rooney, a former Hill staffer, was fired for an autobiographical essay collection, For You, For You, I Am Trilling These Songs (Counterpoint, 2009), that drew upon her experiences in Dick Durbin’s office. Now a professor of creative writing at DePaul University, she is still as merciless in lambasting reader expectations and still is troubled by the bleed between life, art, and work.
Rooney is also co-founder of Rose Metal Press, which specializes in hybrid texts, and she gracefully imposes experimental techniques onto the stock approaches to the political novel (satire, social critique, the heroine vs. machine). Colleen’s story is told or interrupted by the Chief of Staff and a Greek chorus of founding fathers, a “we”who “claim little stake in these individual events…in life we were anything but ordinary. Our victories went unremarked upon by no one. We amassed power and prestige, or else power and prestige coalesced around us.”This strategy illuminates the dilemma of women in politics: even in her own story, Colleen is not given authority.
O, Democracy does not continue tradition, but distorts it. You get the face you deserve, the “you”here being the dysfunctional Senatorial extended family, rendered by Rooney with authenticity and wit. In invoking the gestures that were strategies for managing the genuine stakes and probing moral questions that preoccupied the heroines of political novels past, Rooney underscores the banality of the current political machine, an office culture that’s more Initech fraternity row than The Manchurian Candidate. Colleen’s colleagues, “fit and attractive and improbably multicultural, like drawings of people in foreign language textbooks,”continue to frenzy themselves with planning a parade, a photo op, believing that they “have helped make some of it [history] and are presently in the process of making more.”
Types abound in the Chicago office where the action (intrigue, downfall, scandal) begins: the principled, straight-shooting Senator, the lecherous Chief of Staff, the ditzy mini-dog-toting office floozy J-Lock, the sycophantic staffers, interns by turns inebriated and naïve, and skeevy Republican Congressman Ron Reese Ryder, whose family-values rhetoric and extracurricular activities spur our heroine’s transformation, and, perhaps, transcendence. At the center is Colleen, too smart not to see the corruption behind the things she loves—Art, Democracy—and too devoted to give up altogether. After giving up her real love, photography, for the real work of politics, Colleen finds herself politely marginalized and harassed in the office. An opportunity to make the impact she craves comes in the form of an incriminating sex tape, and her negotiation of what is, tragicomically, her only access to “real”power propels the narrative to its unsettling but satisfying conclusion.
What elevates these familiar elements is not so much plot but tenderness, Rooney’s palpable compassion for her characters. Colleen’s antagonists, stand-ins for figures alternately vilified and exalted, depending on conditions beyond their control, are not exonerated for their behavior, but neither are they crucified. The Chief’s boorishness and mansplaining, J-Lock’s pill habit, Steve Moon Collier’s obsequiousness, and Colleen’s infidelity are, Rooney suggests, natural responses to the “meritocracy, schmeritocracy. At best it’s an arbitraritocracy.”We are not invited to treat what befalls these characters as an inevitability, or even to judge them for their participation in the system, but we are provoked to look at the political as human endeavor, and to wonder why, as the narrators state, “Democracy is not the exclusive province of a specialized class. Or rather, it is,” or why Colleen remains “always [in] the cycle of sadness…always the tension between wanting to be a fool and do the right thing, and wanting just to push papers around and make cool jokes with your coworkers. The Senator, she knows, has just been so real.”
Ultimately, this novel interrogates the struggle for authenticity. Does an awareness of meaninglessness negate the impulse to make meaning? If so, how do we apply ourselves to this meaning-making? While the target here is the political world, Rooney’s questions have resonance with any system in which the self’s hunger for prostration in service of a higher calling is reduced or bifurcated into absolutes. Give in or go home. How, too, should idealism and pragmatism intertwine in endeavors that are corporatizing the ephemeral, high-minded, private? The downfall of the body politic, Rooney seems to argue, is incorporeality.
What lends the novel poignancy, however, is that Colleen is an old-fashioned heroine, an idealist, who does want more. If that “wanting”is not only natural, suggests O, Democracy!, but necessary, then what follows are still more discomfiting questions. How best participate in a system for humans, by humans, marred by humans? Watching the rallies on Michigan Avenue, Colleen thinks “…of her dad’s honeybees. The trails they blaze to find food for the hive, the dances they dance to communicate their discoveries, the way they work together toward a common goal in harmonious understanding.”As a writer, Rooney is too savvy to situate this epiphany as not banal, but she’s too wise not to articulate that, as Colleen reflects, “‘All I ever wanted’may be the saddest construction of any sentence, but also the best.’”Remind yourself, as Colleen does, that you, Reader, are “not here as a functionary. You are here as yourself. You are here as a witness.”