Kathleen Rooney. Chicago, IL: Fifth Star Press, 2014. 416 pages. $24.00.
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“There is, perhaps, a shadow cast by the desire for a more perfect union. The desire for any perfection at all. Which is an unwillingness to be satisfied.”
O, Democracy!, a fictionalized account of author Kathleen Rooney’s experience in politics, follows Colleen, a young woman working for a nameless Democratic senator in the spring of 2008—not for the eventual leader of the Free World, but the other one. The novel ends on the eve of Obama’s 2008 election, after Colleen’s dismissal, on a tone of dubious hope: “Colleen is no longer thinking, as she has been since her recent occupational disasters, I am fucked and futureless. Instead, she turns to Walter and screams so he can hear her, ‘This is it!’ with everything she’s got.” Yes, idealism can be a form of violence, the novel suggests, yet is a danger perhaps more worth risking than the rigor mortis of constitutional apathy.
As Rooney says in an interview: “It’s not just a political novel, but a workplace novel. We all have fantasies of telling off a bad boss, but I think more and more with the Precariat class, we’ve entered into this attitude of not just ‘Get a job’ but ‘You should be grateful for any work you get. Don’t complain.’”
Being fired isn’t the worst thing that can happen to someone. As we know from apocryphal stories such as John Updike’s “A&P,” sometimes being handed the pink slip can be a blessing in disguise, salvation, or a deus ex machina, forwarding the destiny of a hero or heroine. O, Democracy!, a book whose apostrophic title invokes Whitman with tempered irony, focuses on a world in which the characters’ most strenuous efforts—and ideals—are constrained by the preordination not of the elect, but professional politicians.
Messages about women asking for what they deserve, such as Lean In and in similar books (How Remarkable Women Lead; The Confidence Code; Thrive) often clash with the double standards of a capitalist workplace, wherein women are too often penalized for not negotiating carefully enough or for daring to negotiate at all: having the gall to request maternity leave, equal pay, and benefits. Colleen, however, isn’t positioned as a character who asks for material gain so much as respect and a voice.
Throughout the novel, Colleen’s perspective is undercut by the other staffers, her contributions often taking the form of covering up—or covering for—rather than speaking or acting on her own accord, such as on Great Lakes Cleanup Day, when the Senator bows out due to a minor financial scandal.
“We might have to keep out of the limelight for the next couple days. Keep his head down and let it blow over.”
Gina was telling Colleen this, not soliciting her opinion, and before Colleen could collect her two cents to toss in, Gina was on her way back to her office, trying to get the Chief on the phone. At day’s end, it has been decided by forces invisible and much higher up that Colleen will go to Great Lakes Cleanup Day on the Senator’s behalf.
She will hand out press releases detailing his proposed Great Lakes legislation.
She will pick up trash.
She will not speak.
The voices of this text range from the disembodied choral voice of the Founding Fathers (“We used scientific metaphors is our political writings. We were true citizens of the Age of Reason. We wanted to know of what the world was made and how these substances operated. We are still wondering”) to that of Colleen’s shrewd observations about politics and life (“Knowing is better than not knowing. . . . Even when the thing you need to know is shitty”). Often the two contrast—as if between Whitmanian largess and contemporary snark—to comic effect.
While examining the double standards capitalism imposes on women, Rooney deftly dodges the bullet of trying to make aesthetics work in the service of a political agenda, and she’s less interested in exposing a post-2008 politically rigged Capitol than in exploring how the social idealism of an individual transcends not only the two-party system, but gender, nepotism, and class.
Colleen’s efforts to maintain authenticity, and her struggle to decide whether to fuel a scandal whose evidence—an incriminating sextape—she possesses speak to her moral character, as well as the role of the female protagonist, in an anti-heroic, or at least aheroic age. Reflecting on the mythology of the girl detective, Colleen recalls the stories she read in junior high, before she met with the powers that confront an ascensional class subject:
The books were written under a collective pseudonym. Over the decades, an untold number of uncredited hands worked from a general outline to produce and maintain the image of a girl who remained consistently strong, unswervingly heroic.
On an endless upward trajectory.
Wondering what will become of the Senator, Colleen feels like a teen detective who will never solve the final case, and will never grow old.
While Colleen’s dilemmas, processes, and inner dialogue are set in high relief, major characters like the Senator and the Chief of Staff go unnamed, begging the question of how character should be fronted in a “political novel” without being reduced to caricature or polemic. The novel takes place in a political climate in which her male colleagues’ right to representation is axiomatic, and hers conceded, by granting institutions or individuals more invested with keeping gender binaries and disparities alive.
O, Democracy! offers an insider perspective into an agon of identity politics when the personal trumps ideology, and where, come election time, character slander is more effective in winning votes than proving the merit of one’s own candidacy over time. Rooney’s questions are further weighted by our era of privatization and corporatization, wherein a living Constitution and an electoral process based on public sentiment have the power to radically change the political order, including supporting the rise of a Frankenstein. “A lot of the issues [in our democracy] are structural, systemic, institutional,” Rooney says. Colleen is a person who appreciates the “capacity for nostalgia”: her living hope is, like the fourth wave of feminism, largely ideological—and maintained against great odds, even the odds of realism.
The other day, Colleen and the Chief of Staff were discussing the destruction wrought by the Rapacious British Oil Company, and how it always feels like the world is ending. How everything is in a decline, impossibly steep. How maybe every generation feels that way, but the world keeps going, and so do they. How it’s always already too late somehow, but they, the People, keep acting as though it’s not. And they go on.
This being said, O, Democracy! asks us to remember our own unalloyed hope in 2008, measured against what the last eight years have brought, and what the next four—or eight—years might bring. Reading O, Democracy! during an election year gives one the sense of the obstacles—systemic and personal—that a woman must overcome to be considered an “insider” in a patriarchal system.