A review of O, DEMOCRACY! by Kathleen Rooney
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Books are like lovers. Some are easy; others are hard to get.
If books are like lovers, and surely they are, most American novels are like prostitutes—not odalisques or courtesans or hetaerae. They spread their pages for the firstcomer. They lay their mysteries bare. They are accessible to all. And they, and the experiences they afford, tend to be forgettable.
O, Democracy! (2014) might be easy to read, but its mysteries are not easily exhausted.
D.H. Lawrence, in Fantasia of the Unconscious, writes:
“I count it as a misfortune that serious books are exposed in the public market, like slaves exposed naked for sale. But there we are, since we live in an age of mistaken democracy, we must go through with it.”
O, Democracy! which concerns mistaken democracy, has received a great deal of media attention because of its autobiographical sources. The book, after all, centers on a twenty-eight-year old intern who works for the Senior Senator of Illinois circa 2008. The authoress, Professor Kathleen Rooney, worked as a United States Senate Aide between the years of 2007 and 2010. One should avoid making simple equations between the novel and Professor Rooney’s life, however. Her main character is named Colleen Dugan, not Colleen Mooney. And the Senator is named “the Senator,” not Nick Nurbin, Rick Rurbin, or Mick Murbin.
Colleen discovers a videotape. It is a videotape that could annihilate the Senator’s rival, a Republican Congressman named Ron Reese Ryder who is likely a composite of the many Republican Congressmen who bash gays in the name of Christianity and yet suppurate in Super-8s and fake love in Taco Bell restrooms. Will Colleen choose the mountain road of morality? Or will she choose the underpass of politics? You will have to read the book to find out.
As I was deciphering this book–which is very funny, by the way, and blissfully free of clichés–I played a game which one might call “Let’s Find the Referents!” “What is the writer alluding to?” I asked myself again and again as I read.
To what is Professor Rooney alluding when she writes of a film that “feature[s] two actors from a late-night sketch comedy program as the hosts of an improbably successful cable access show broadcast from the basement of a suburban home” ?
This could only be Wayne’s World (1992), a film that I have never had the desire to see.
Is the “Rapacious British Oil Company” British Petroleum? It must be.
The “Alabama woman” who refused to “move to the back of the bus”  is obviously Rosa Parks.
The “Alaskan hockey mom [who] pays lipsticked lip service to feminism without actually saying the F-word”  is certainly Sarah Palin.
Most of the allusions, as you can tell, are not difficult to figure out, but every now and then there is an obscure allusion. Consider, for instance, the “book-length essay” given to Colleen by her husband Walter. It contains this description of Chicago:
“Once you’ve become a part of this particular patch… you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real” [qtd. in 227].
To my ear, the prose cited sounds precisely like the prose of H.L. Mencken. I was dismayed to find out that I was wrong! No, it is not the great Mencken. The passage comes from Nelson Algren. Thank Google for Google.
All of the allusions–absolutely all of them, as far as I can tell–are exophoric. Exophora is a term that linguists use to describe a reference that points to something outside of a given field of language. It is a bit like trying to solve an equation with a variable: A=X. We know what ‘A’ is. But what is ‘X’? The reader’s experiences in the world will shape the answers to these questions.
* * * * *
One of the most enduring writing-teacher clichés is: “Show, don’t tell!”
What, precisely, does this mean?
Narrative is the way in which the storyteller–not the author, but the figure who is telling the story–makes things known. (Narrative is derived from the Latin adjective gnarus, which means “knowing,” and which, in turn, may be traced back to the Greek gnosis, “knowledge.”)
There are two ways of making things known: by showing the reader things and by telling the reader things.
When a narrator shows us things, s/he describes them, illuminates them, makes them visible, audible, etc.
The writings of Alain Robbe-Grillet are perhaps the clearest examples of this tendency.
When a narrator tells us things, s/he informs us what something means.
The writings of Thomas Mann are perhaps the clearest examples of this tendency.
O, Democracy! shows and tells in equal measure. Professor Rooney writes essayistically, at times. We are notified that Gina Moretti, Press Secretary, is “terrifying and a miser with praise” . We are informed that Colleen “feels f***ing horrible”  after she discovers the videotape. Anti-abortion protesters are “[v]ituperative” and “sanctimonious” . And so forth and so on.
And yet, and yet. There is vivid description, as well. As Colleen walks through the Federal Plaza, the “red-orange stabile of a giant flamingo reveals itself to her right” . For those of you unfamiliar with Chicago, that is a fifty-ton steel sculpture sculpted by Alexander Calder. Pure description without metaphor or simile. Anti-abortionist protesters storm the thirty-eighth floor of the Kluczynski Federal Building at 230 South Dearborn Street. One of them has a poster with this image: “The smeared roadkill mess of the twig-limbed fetus on an anonymous white sheet” . Good use of metaphors. One of my favorite characters, and one of Colleen’s least favorite characters, is a vapid-but-fun former cheerleader named Jennifer Whitlock or “J-Lock.” Here is how her phenomenality is described: “She has a baked-on tan and breasts that sit on her chest like snowglobes” . Good use of a simile, there. Here is another simile well-used: “[The Senator’s] fleshy cheeks frame his face like plump steaks.” That is a simile equal to the best of John Cheever. And these are the sentences I prize the most: “As it is, the air is dead and still. It feels emulsified, almost colloidal–the individual water particles floating suspended” .
Now, those are sentences worthy of Suglia, which is the highest praise that I could accord to another living author. And not only are these sentences wonderful. The entire book is crackling with wonderful sentences. Kathleen Rooney, poetess and essayist, offers us the perfect synthesis of illumination and information.
Dr. Joseph Suglia