by Kathleen Rooney
*Review by guest Kim Koga
Working for the senator has fouled Colleen’s language and dimmed her outlook.
But she still has the impulse of idealism that brought her here.
Before I even started reading this book I felt intimidated by it because I don’t follow politics very closely. I felt ill prepared, but in reality this is a work of fiction, no matter how closely it may mirror real life. O, Democracy! begins in the spring of 2008 and Colleen Dugan is working as an aide for the Senator’s office. Even though I felt daunted, as I began to read, I found that political knowledge wasn’t important because that’s not what the story is about. This is a story about Colleen Dugan and the inner workings of a political office, not the glossy exterior, but the true texture of a political office. Throughout the book we get to see what this life is like through Colleen’s thoughts and perceptions.
I love Rooney’s descriptions of people – like a crossword puzzle or Jeopardy clue: “The first hit single by a female pop star who got her start at the age of ten on a game show whose stated mission was to search for stars and who lately has been better known for her repeated breakdowns comes over the stereo.” There is enough to signal who this is or usually enough of a description that I can search the internet and figure it out. Even if I couldn’t figure it out, it didn’t keep me from enjoying the book, or detract from my understanding. I found that these descriptions made me more interested in O, Democracy! in that the reader can imagine whomever they want; this is not to say that any person could fit the Junior Senator or the wife of the forty-second president, but rather that the lack of given name puts a flex into the story that would not be otherwise present.
Only some of the characters have names while others are referred to as the Senator, the Chief of Staff or Chief, Junior Senator, etc. I like the way that the lack of name allows the book to float through time, into any election year in any state. While many references are Chicago specific they are not too frequent as to limit the book to being tied to specific geographic spaces. The reader can imagine what these streets might looks like, they can replace Lake Michigan with Lake X, and Rapacious British Oil Company with any oil company.
Colleen has ambition and talent, but isn’t a good fit for her office. She’s perfectly competent, but there is something else out there for her. She’s worked hard, but isn’t recognized or promoted in the office. She speaks to her supervisor about raises, but gets the runaround because there “isn’t money in the budget”; however, she notices that her supervisor receives consistent quarterly raises. She pretends but necessarily doesn’t fit in with her co-workers & hides her creative pursuits. At some point Colleen is told that her art life and work life cannot overlap at all. Although, she tries to make them function together by working on her photography in her few free moments between assignments, but she’s quickly rebuked.
Bouncing from past to present, we see how she got where she is and how her outlook on politics have soured. Colleen’s story succinctly showed me the violence of idealism and made me think about how these things happen. Although Rooney did work as an aide, and much of the book reflects events around the 2008 election, this book must be read as a work of fiction. We cannot confuse Rooney with Colleen, and all of the events in the book must not be confused with reality. Throughout Rooney is intelligent, humorous, and engaging. At nearly 400 pages, this book went by quickly and was quite enthralling. In flipping back through the book, I realized that I missed how the reflections at the beginning of the book tie-in to the complexity of the Colleen’s story, so I will definitely be going back to read this excellent book again.
*Kim Koga is a freelance writer and editor, and a managing editor for 1913 Press. Tinfish press published her chapbook Ligature Strain in 2011. Her work has been featured in _list magazine, Lantern Review, and Ariel among others. She received her MFA in Poetry from the University of Notre Dame and currently resides in San Diego, CA.