It Could Be Robinson Calling
Pulp Fiction re-ignited an old narrative trope that was then adopted by many clever popular films: a series of scenes, jumping from one character to another, and forward and backward in time, can only be assembled into a coherent plot toward the end of the film. The trope proved popular because it gives the viewer a sense of excitement and intellectual reward. What was confusing gradually becomes clear, and the fragments of a puzzle resolve themselves into a complete image.
Kathleen Rooney has followed this structural model in her new collection, For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs (Counterpoint, 2010). Seemingly scatter-shot in both topic and attitude, Rooney’s essays gradually reveal themselves to be kaleidoscopic treatments of a single theme, or at least a closely-linked set of themes. The opening piece, “Natural’s Not In It,” describes in close and funny detail Rooney’s experiences with Brazilian waxes. In it, the first of several episodes of waxing actually takes place in Brazil, with Rooney and her sister Beth sneaking off from family to indulge in some youthful naughtiness:
The waxing room could scarcely be more sordid and I love it for that. Part of the fantasy is that this is sneaky; this is secret. Nobody but Beth and I know where we are. The mattress looks filthy beneath the crackly white paper, and tiny hairs — which I hope are just Beth’s — dust the floor: curly little commas, twisty little question marks. The woman commands me to take off my pants and lay down and I do.
Further anecdotes are followed with some discussion of questions raised by the procedure itself and the relationship between Rooney’s identity, and self-conception, and waxing. She asks, “But if waxing raises my awareness and pride and pleasure in a part of myself, is that wrong? Is that the Beauty Myth? Is that the triumph of the patriarchy?” The essay concludes, “I don’t know what I’m in the process of becoming, don’t know where I’m going with this. I just know that I’m going there with very little hair down there, at the moment.”
This progression from personal experience through large-scale analysis to pithy, often uncertain closure is the model for Rooney’s process throughout the collection. She is cheerfully, even gleefully, exhibitionistic about exterior events, and when those events lead naturally toward questions of their repercussions on her interior state, she largely withdraws into theorizing, literary references, and witty conclusions. This habit sets up a tension that animates the organizing, unifying theme around which the essays revolve: a young woman sets out optimistically into the world with ideas about how things ought to work. At every turn, things fail to work out as planned. Sometimes the results are better — often they are worse; and the optimism begins to fray. The lack of interiority results in a hip modern Pangloss, who is fast on her way to becoming a Candide.
The essay “Fast Anchor’d, Eternal, O Love!” for example, is a riveting third-person account of Rooney’s workplace flirtation with the chief of staff of a U.S. senator. It begins, “Once upon a time, there was a girl who got everything she wanted, but was still unsatisfied.” The aforementioned chief of staff? “He was the Lord of Misrule, blue eyes always with a lurid gleam, but also an edge of something smart and hard, something meaner, that he kept mostly in check.” The flirtation? “‘Do you like wearing that skirt?’ he might say the day she wore her pale and crisp-ribboned crinoline, frothy as a summer drink. ‘Yes,’ she’d say. ‘Why?’ ‘I can just tell by the way you wear it’.”
And the literary references? In this instance, C. S. Lewis (on reading and loneliness), Roland Barthes (on reading and the pleasure of anticipation), and Phillip Lopate (on disappointment).
But the conclusion. . . ah, the conclusion: her wit can no longer conceal the pain of separation. She is driving west with her husband, away from her beloved Chicago, through the mountains: “You can get the radio stations to tune in high and clear, but you can’t quite get there. Not from here.” In this fleeting moment, Rooney is straining toward an expression of grief, loss, and pain. In flashes like these, the book achieves the mass and substance of its theme: the agony of growing up.
The context in which this growing up takes place emerges as the context-hopping gives way to a finite focus: politics, literature and writing, traveling through the American landscape, and attraction. This ranking, from the abstract to the personal, corresponds strongly with the quality of the writing, which grows more animated and original the closer it moves to Rooney the Individual, and away from Rooney the Thinker. Consider her approach to politics in the title essay, describing events circa 2006:
And though I’d been living in DC during the 9/11 attacks, had marched in 2003 against so-called Operation Iraqi Freedom, and had phone-banked for the Democracts during the heartbreaking 2004 elections, I didn’t really see what else I could do to Save the World, to Make a Difference.
Well, that’s nice — but a little generic. So what does she do? She takes a job described as teaching a senatorial office’s interns to write well — which almost immediately morphs into basic intern-herding, and culminates in the tawdry problem of pricing a kazoo order for a parade. The theme of disappointment as hopes clash with realities is present, but the generic motives lead to a flat story.
Superior to slight essays like these are her pieces on literature and writing, where Rooney starts to produce passages of real emotion and individuality. Her essay on classroom plagiarism, “I Will Catch You,” written as a second-person harangue, includes such delightful formulations as:
Maybe some of you will get away with it. But it is my job to make it so hard for you to do so that you will wind up wishing you had just written the fucking paper. . . I am not a downer, and I am not a cynic. There are students in all of my classes who are there because they genuinely love to learn. My job is to make sure you, the cheater, get a shittier grade than those students.
There you have forceful language and a grappling with the bitter disappointment of those who do not love the word as she does. And how does she love the word? She tells us at the opening of her essay “To Built a Quiet City in my Mind:”
I am in love with another man, but my husband doesn’t mind.
I have come to the city to find this man’s apartments. Over the course of the week, I will seek out all nine — one in Brooklyn, eight in Manhattan — but I will never find the man himself.
I am in love with a dead man.
The dead man is the enigmatic poet Weldon Kees, who either killed himself in 1955 or simply vanished, and whom she quotes affectionately throughout the tale of her quest to visit all of his apartments. The essay makes that leap of inspiration which takes it from the quotidian to the truly strange, the Borgesian strange: a numbered series of apartments, a man so thoroughly missing that he seems never to have existed. This is the outcome of a love of writing bordering on obsession.
Rooney’s depiction of travel through the American landscape is not obsessive, but it has the fine texture of the personal: this she has done and lived, in a way unique to herself. Here she is on the move, with her husband at the wheel:
The rain starts up again. I am being morbid and the sky is gelid. No telling how long this storm will last. The sixteen-foot Budget truck shakes and shudders in the wind. Martin’s face remains stoic, though he likens the conditions to ‘trying to walk down the street during a gale carrying a dry erase board — it feels like a sail.’ At least our truck is full, freighty. The trailer in front of us is empty, fishtailing south as the wind blasts from the north. There were not many to begin with, but people are starting to pull off the interstate. We hate to keep driving, but there’s nowhere else to go.
This passage has the plain-spoken charisma of the best writing about the American road, and instances like it occur throughout the book. Rooney hates driving, a point she makes at tiresome length in one of her political essays, “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” but boy does she like to sit in the passenger seat and look out the window. And she captures this as well.
But what really sparks her to life is attraction — romantic, sexual, or intellectual; what some people might call “chemistry.” She devotes two essays to it, “Fast Anchor’d” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Her interest in attraction is quite specific. She’s not much interested in who attracts her or why. She’s not particularly interested in why anyone would be attracted to her. She’s not even very interested in the particular qualities of the men who are attracted to her. But she’s very interested in the mechanism of men being attracted to her in and of itself. Her observation is at its sharpest as she follows, entranced, this process in motion. At the start of her non-affair with the chief of staff, she observes that he “. . .loved to say her name and would say it over and over, all the time, would call her into his office. . . ‘Have a seat,’ he would say, and she’d sink into the cushions, and then he would say her name and tell her a story.”
Near the end, with a clinical precision to the description of the physical evidence of emotion which would bring a smile to the lips of Mickey Spillane:
He offered her money for a cab, but she said she’d walk. He said he’d limp. And then he kissed her. He kissed her face; he did not kiss her lips. He said her name. He put his hand against her ribs, then appeared to think better of it. He pinched her side and that was that. She said good-bye and started walking. She felt him watching, but she did not turn around.
The other attracted man in the book, star of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” is her student Charlie. “Sheepish, Charlie shrugged his plaid-clad shoulders up toward his ears, tousled hair curling around them, brown eyes staring into Kathy’s without blinking,” she writes. As Charlie puts it in the essay, Kathy is “a total babe as well, I mean, really hot.” Rooney could care less about that — how does Charlie express his opinion? “Then Kathy was lighting her cigarette inexpertly, the lighter flame guttering in the high dry wind, more characteristic of late summer than spring. She was about to give up when Charlie leaned in and said, ‘Here, light off mine.’ ”
This essay too ends in disappointment, in the imminence and arrival of loss: the end of the semester, the end of the job, loss of time, loss of youth. Kathy is reveling in the attention, but Rooney is haunted by maturity.
By the time we reach the final essay, a definite impression has accrued: a likable young woman with a variety of interests, many interesting, several not, and a variety of adventures, most interesting, a few not, is increasingly troubled by her experience of the disparity between hope and reality, and expresses it in brief passages that unify the rest around this single aching principle. At this late stage, the author reveals her awareness of the disjunction between herself and the character she has created. And she brings the subtext into the text, more or less, in the final piece, “However Measured or Far Away.” It concerns her brilliant cousin Jennifer, who, nearly finished with her PhD work, decides to become a Roman Catholic nun. Jennifer’s choice appalls Rooney in a way, because its stark commitment and finality throws into high relief her ambivalence about the path of her own life:
I tell myself that what I am feeling can’t possibly be envy. I don’t want the celibacy or the poverty or the humility — I suck at all three — but I want the confidence, the surety, the faith. I think of Jennifer defending her dissertation and then walking away, turning her back on all things worldly, and I am disappointed. I am angry. And, if I am honest, I am totally fucking jealous.
The narrative context of the essay is one last celebratory hangout with Jennifer before she enters the convent. It is a good-bye essay, but what is being left behind is deliberately unclear. Is Rooney giving up on certainty or ambivalence? Is she giving up on her hopes or renewing them by rejecting the lessons of her experience? She ends it with an expression of will and a renunciation of goal, and I think this is a good place for her to take her leave of us. After a great deal of running around, and thinking, and chatting, she has shown us as honestly as she can — perhaps more honestly than she herself appreciated — the failure of one project for living, and the modest start of another. What the new project will be, and how it will go, are not yet resolved. Call it hope in the face of experience; a very good place to stop, for now.