A review of O, DEMOCRACY! (Kathleen Rooney) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

 

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 ************. 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! 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 U.S. 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 mortality? 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” [17]?

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” [159] is obviously Rosa Parks.

The “Alaskan hockey mom [who] pays lipsticked lip service to feminism without actually saying the F-word” [243] is certainly Sarah Palin.

Most of the references, as you can tell, are not difficult to figure out, but every now and then there is an obscure reference. 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 references–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” [31]. We are informed that Colleen “feels f***ing horrible” [136] after she discovers the videotape. Anti-abortion protesters are “[v]ituperative” and “sanctimonious” [140]. 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” [43]. 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” [138]. 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 she is described: “She has a baked-on tan and breasts that sit on her chest like snowglobes” [145]. 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” [211].

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

 

 

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ROBINSON ALONE by Kathleen Rooney

Robinson Alone (2012) by Kathleen Rooney
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

“Robinson” was a mask that poet Weldon Kees wore. He knew, as all poets and poetesses do, that literature begins where autobiography ends. He knew, as all poets and poetesses do, that literature is not confession, but impersonation.

Literature is not auto-bio-graphy, but auto-thanoto-graphy. Literature is not the writing of the self that lives, but the writing of the self that dies.

Weldon Kees wore the mask, the persona, of “Robinson” in all of four poems.

And then he disappeared — literally.

I encourage you to read, if you have not yet done so, Kees’ poem “Robinson.” It begins thus: “The dog stops barking after Robinson has gone. / His act is over.”

The poet disappears, and no one cares. Did anyone ever really care?

These are the final verses of the poem:

“Outside, white buildings yellow in the sun. / Outside, the birds circle continuously. / Where trees are actual and take no holiday.”

The poet dematerializes, but reality? Reality always stays the same. As Lacan said of the real: “The real is what always stays in place.”

It might be tempting to say — and this has been said — that Kees disappeared much like his predecessor, Rimbaud. But Kees’ silence is not Rimbaud’s (alleged) silence. Because Rimbaud was never really silent. Rimbaud never stopped writing. Even when he trafficked in ivory, Rimbaud was a writer. Rimbaud stopped writing “poetry” (as one would ordinarily understand this term) and started writing inventories. Only Rimbaud’s job title changed. He stopped calling himself a “poet” and starting calling himself an “ivory trader.” But even in Rimbaud’s inventories, one can hear the insistent, violent rhythms of poetic language.

Kees’ self-vanishing was absolute.

* * * * *

DePaul University professor Kathleen Rooney’s 2012 lyrical novel, Robinson Alone, derives its title from the Robinson poems of Weldon Kees.

It would be a mistake to say that these are poems about Weldon Kees. Nor are they merely poems about solitude, even about poetic solitude.

They are poems of solitude, poetologies of solitude, and phenomenologies of solitude, written in verse of lapidary smoothness. They display a total mastery of the English language. One must have mastered the English language to create assonances between “potroast” and “topcoat,” between “crisp” and “perspicuous.”

Though it would be impossible for me to do justice to all of the tropes and flows of this heartbreaking book, let me pause over a few verses.

Robinson is dragged to a Western-themed honky-tonk, though he moved from Nebraska to Missouri in order to escape the West (and to enter a writing program). At the close of the poem:

“Something’s being learned here, but not a lesson” (22).

Robinson walks down Fifth Avenue. Perhaps he passes a museum advertisement that uses the words “camera obscura”:

“Robinson’s not sure what a camera obscura / is for, but he thinks he should have / his portrait done with one… Something used to photograph the obscure” (27-28).

Of course, that isn’t what a “camera obscura” (“dark room”) is. But his musings raise the questions: How does one phenomenalize darkness? Can there be a “negative phenomenology,” as Gerald Bruns once unfortunately phrased it? Is poetry ever a phenomenon?

“Consider consider consider the oyster” (37).

Consider the oyster, not the lobster. The oyster is a solitary creature. An auto-inseminating, auto-sexual, solipsistic creature. The oyster is a hermaphrodite, both female and male at the same time, and requires no sexual partner.

Robinson is staring down from the Brooklyn Bridge. He considers hurtling himself into the abyss. He catches a stranger’s glance and changes his mind:

“There’s something sexy about desolation” (42).

The interesting thing about this thought is that it could be everted and still be accurate: “There’s nothing sexy about desolation.” The word “desolation” co mes from the Latin, de- (“thoroughly”) and solus (“alone”). To be desolate is to be thoroughly alone.

“Sexiness” refers to the possibility of being-with-others (Mitsein, to use Heidegger’s term). Desolation, then, is receptivity to the possibility of being-with-others. Aloneness affords the possibility of a relation to another human being.

* * * * *

Kathleen Rooney’s “Robinson” is a castaway marooned in a debased modernity. Much like the main character of J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, his marooning is self-imposed. Why is this? Why must this be?

It must be because Robinson is a poet. To poeticize is to withdraw from all significant relations. Every poet must vanish, must withdraw from the world in order for poetry to be possible.

Dr. Joseph Suglia