Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Micro-review of O, Democracy!

Kathleen Rooney’s novel, O, Democracy! tells the story of an idealist, a twenty-something working in the Chicago office of the Senior Senator of Illinois—an experience Rooney had first explored in her collection of essays, For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs. Her protagonist may be an idealist but O, Democracy! is not really about idealism—at least not of the naïve or overly simple kind. The more knowledgeable, self-aware and dedicated her protagonist is the more tragic the story—but also the sweeter. This is clearly a love song to American democracy as it really is and as it could be but never quite is. The strength of the book resides in its lack of too-easy cynicism and also its avoidance of dogmatic ideological posturing. Its charm, however, belongs solely to Colleen Dugan—a self-defined do-gooder who is always coming up against the limits of her own vanity and the rampant sexism that both bolsters and knocks that vanity down. This character—like Rooney’s protagonist from her novel-in-poems Robinson Alone—sees great value in the effort of self-construction. It’s clearly one of the aspects that draws her to a life in politics, but it is also a constant source of conflict. Colleen likes her pretty dresses but so does the Chief of Staff, her antagonist and foil. He says that she was “an uppity bitch—quite the mouth. But I thought I loved her . . . for that.” Over the course of the book, Colleen worries over the nature of responsibility on a tiny scale and on a grand one, which becomes painfully acute when a certain illicit video comes into her possession. Colleen wishes to wield power, to have a real seat at the proverbial table of political power, but when she could easily destroy her boss’s opponent, she hesitates—the flash drive containing the evidence burning a hole in her purse: “I went from totally marginalized to I-get-to-decide-the-election in like fifteen minutes. In the background, slowly growing in importance, is the bid of the Junior Senator of Illinois for president—complicating and paralleling Colleen’s professional, ethical and personal dilemmas in surprising ways. Rooney’s book is a page-turner, a political thriller lacking nearly all of the clichés of the genre and instead giving the reader a complex look at the nature of active citizenship.
--Carlo Matos

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