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April 28, 2014

Book Notes - Kathleen Rooney "O, Democracy!"

O, Democracy!

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Kathleen Rooney's ambitious debut novel O, Democracy! brilliantly captures both the political and personal of our time with a keen eye and abundant humor.

Jonathan Evison wrote of the book:

"O, Democracy! infuriates and inspires. Rooney has written a brilliant and fiercely readable novel of politics and ideals, both an indictment and a celebration of the American Experiment, which will leave you breathless."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Kathleen Rooney's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, O, Democracy!:


Although the novel is narrated from the collective perspective of the ghosts of the Founding Fathers, O, Democracy! is as much the story of low-level Senate Aide Colleen Dugan as is it is that of the 2008 elections. As her Senator boss and Presidential hopeful Barack Obama both experience their travails in the public eye, Colleen undergoes her own character arc from starry-eyed political idealism to an informed disgust with a democratic system that exists not so much to make a positive difference but to protect its own interests by staying the same. This playlist reflects that curve.

"Let's Work Together" by Wilbert Harrison (1962)
This R&B song presents an idealized vision of the cooperation necessary for the success of participatory democracy:

Together we will stand,
divided we'll fall,
Come on now people, let's get on the ball,
And work together
Come on, come on let's work together
Now, now people,
Say now together we will stand,
every boy, girl, woman, and man.

Egalitarian collaboration is the dream Colleen knows can't be achieved but she wants it anyway.

"Party in the USA" by Miley Cyrus (2009)
At the beginning of the book, when she starts to work at the Senator's office, Colleen is nodding her head like "Yeah"—yeah, I can do this job, frustrating as it is—but it rapidly becomes clear that she, like Miley, didn't get the memo.

"Baby We'll Be Fine" by the National (2005)
A different National song, "Fake Empire," actually appears in the novel (since it was used by the Obama campaign), but that's not the one for this soundtrack. Rather, it's this one about how: "All night I lay on my pillow and pray / For my boss to stop me in the hallway / Lay my head on his shoulder and say / Son, I've been hearing good things." Colleen wants to be recognized for her work and to be seen as equally important as her male co-workers but this will never, ever happen, because her immediate supervisor, the Chief of Staff, is an unapologetic and unremovable grabass.

"I Feel It All" by Feist (2007)
This is kind of a coming-of-age story where at first, the protagonist has not yet become habituated to the disappointments of adulthood. For better or for worse, she feels it all, and ironically, this makes her less successful at a job where empathy seems like it should be—but really isn't—an asset.

"Miss America" by David Byrne (1997)
Some part of Colleen wants to be her nation's teenage fanclub, even though she knows its wicked ways. But can she afford to move above her station? That is the question.

"Questioningly" by the Ramones (1978)
Colleen sometimes sleeps with people she shouldn't, and then sometimes she has to work with them, as is the case with one of her fellow low-level Senate Aides, Andrew. This song captures that "Oh god, we have to still talk to each other?" vibe.

"Dancing on My Own" by Robyn (2010)
Months after he and Colleen hook up, Andrew goes on to sleep with one of his interns and subsequently Colleen feels jealous, though she knows she has no right to: "I'm so messed up / I'm outta line." She shouldn't really care what her one-night stand does, but she can't help it, and it hurts. This song is all about knowing that something is stupid and doing it anyway, but trying to get through it nevertheless.

"Nice New Outfit" by Fugazi (1991)
At one point, Colleen and her fellow underlings attend a high-dollar Democratic fundraiser at the Ritz. There, Colleen becomes unable to suppress her growing suspicion of the bullshitty underside of the "American Dream." She's finally beginning to see that she—like everyone else—lives in a world where voting and working hard appear far less important than having piles of money and being able to contribute it to candidates.

"Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg (1939), the Israel K "Israel Kamakawiwoʻole" amakawiwoʻole version (1993)
As jaded as Colleen comes close to feeling, she retains her desire to make the world A Better Place. One of the ways she feels she is able to help the Senator do so is in their office's efforts to protect Lake Michigan from a rapacious British oil company seeking to pollute it in the name of jobs and industry. This song goes with one of the few moments where she and her co-workers feel like they've managed to actually achieve something.

"Oh Bondage Up Yours!" by X-Ray Specs (1977)
Early in the novel, Coleen comes into possession of a secret that that has the potential to change the course of the Senator's reelection campaign. Out of deference to the Chief of Staff and her own low position, she keeps it to herself for a long, long time. But when it appears that the Senator, a basically good guy, is in danger of losing to his vicious and hypocritical opponent, Colleen gets tired of waiting and she acts. Up yours, people who "say little girls should be seen and not heard."

"Hide and Seek" by Imogen Heap (2005)
Colleen's bold action has dramatic political and personal consequences, and this song—"Mmm whatcha say? Mmm that you only meant well?"—speaks to the idea that any idealism can also be a kind of violence. Thinking you have the ability to improve or perfect a situation is a huge risk. You might make things better, but you might make them worse, and there's no way to know for sure until you've acted.

"Letter of Resignation" by Propagandhi (1996)
Ultimately, Colleen experiences a great fall and loses a lot of what she used to think was most important. The outro of this song where the girl comes in and narrates a letter is right on for how this kind of loss and yearning can feel, especially to the young. "What if I were coming home," the girl says, "from doing work that I loved and that was for us all? What if I looked at the houses and the air and the streets, knowing they were in accord, not set against us? What if we knew the powers of this country moved to provide for us and for all people? How would that be, how would we feel and think, and what would we create?"


Kathleen Rooney and O, Democracy! links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
video trailer for the book

Booklist review
ForeWord review

Chicago Magazine interview with the author
Chicago Reader interview with the author
Christine Sneed interview with the author
Curbside Splendor interview with the author
Indiana Review interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Live Nude Girl
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Oneiromance
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Robinson Alone
Ph.D. in Creative Writing interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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