This wasn’t the book I wanted to read by Kathleen Rooney. I wanted to read her other one, a new novel with a beautiful cover featuring a walking protaThis wasn’t the book I wanted to read by Kathleen Rooney. I wanted to read her other one, a new novel with a beautiful cover featuring a walking protagonist, which is one of my things (I have a whole shelf here on walking). But this was the one the library had, so I picked it up. I figured I’m slightly intrigued by the topic—I went through a phase of drawing from live models for about a year and had always been curious about the other end of that experience. And why not see if I liked the author’s voice first? If I do, I thought, then I’ll definitely read her novel.
Turns out I love Kathleen’s voice, and after only a few chapters I decided that I will read anything she writes. It’s not just that she’s smart, taking me on a tour of her memory palace, where she’s left tiny objects of personal significance on the kitchen counter or inside the toilet tank; it’s that we’re friends, in the sense that her concerns, the way she thinks and writes about things is exactly how I would want to (or wish to) think about them, if I were smart enough to think about them, that is. What strikes her curiosity also strikes mine. I was completely immersed in this book, whose topic only mildly interested me when I began.
Intimate, smart, curious, she goes from quoting Barthes to recounting stories of growing up in a semi-repressed family. She leads the reader through her thought process for nude modeling, the many contradictions therein, nude vs. naked, professional yet potentially personal, exposed and vulnerable yet powerful. The attendant notions we have of the human body undraped become the way we see the human body, whether that entails shame, power, eros, or clinical facts.
She uses these meditations on modeling as a jumping off point to examine ideas of self, self worth, identity, the gaze, art, and gender, to name just a few of her many concerns—all topics that would otherwise seem a little too abstract or academic (read: boring) if approached straight instead of through the very concrete body of the model on the stand.
Kathleen’s style is engaging. There’s no apparent effort at the seams, though I’m sure she put effort into it; the appearance of it is that she simply steers you in one direction and then another as the gaze would naturally follow points of interest from the feet to the head of a model. The mechanics are invisible. This is not to say that the prose will knock you over (that’s not the point), but it serves the strange shape of the subject matter incredibly well.
What’s the relationship between model and artist? And what’s the relationship between reader and author? Browsing her website, I found out that Kathleen writes poems for strangers with a group she calls “Poems While You Wait”. I also write poems for strangers, a project I started years ago here in Atlanta called “Free Poems on Demand”. Perhaps we could have been friends in an alternate world, maybe even collaborators, but like the artist/model relationship, I dare not reach out and mess up that alternate world.
For each relationship has its contracts, its secret dimensions that are better kept than broken. We think of intimacy so one dimensionally: as rigidly as friends and lovers only. But each intimacy is also a loss of another intimacy. The lover can touch in a certain way that the artist/model dynamic cannot. Yet the artist and model, due to their special constraints, have a special intimacy that only they have access to. It may even inspire the envy of the lover.
This is also true of the reader/author dynamic, which is maybe why I feel like Kathleen is my friend. I feel as if I’ve gained access to the workings of her brain, the way she thinks, or at least the way she thinks on paper. This is the type of intimacy that asks only for the empathy of the reader. In return, a world opens up so that for brief moments of my very boring day, I am someone else. I can’t wait to read more from my new friend, maybe as soon as the library acquires more of her books....more