To be quiet in a prison, an incarcerated student once told me, is to admit you’re there. During the classes I taught at a women’s correctional facility in New York, students often wrote about their desire to shout, how the sound of their voices carrying down a hall could feel like proof of still being alive.
Rachel Kushner’s devastating third novel “The Mars Room” opens with women shackled inside a bus, shouting at each other as they travel at 2 a.m. from one prison to another. From the first scene it’s clear Kushner recognizes how charged conversations become when speaking is one of the few rights people have left after being “yanked from life, arrested, numbered, ingested, and exposed.”
For much of literary history, there has been a tendency to downplay the political imagination of female writers, celebrating them most for how well they convey the realm of the emotional and personal. That tendency is finally waning, thank goodness, and much of the acclaim Kushner received for her first two novels rightly focused on the prominent role she gives to the larger political forces shaping her characters’ lives. In her first novel, “Telex From Cuba,” she took on Fidel and Raul Castro’s revolt that ended the United Fruit Co.’s reprehensible colony in Cuba. “The Flamethrowers” hurled readers from a motorcycle battalion in World War II to the patriarchal art world of New York in the ’70s.
In “The Mars Room,” her political imagination is a driving force as well. The protagonist, Romy Hall, is among the 86% of incarcerated women in the U.S. who are survivors of sexual abuse. Romy also belongs to the majority of women convicted of homicide who committed crimes out of self-defense.
Thanks to Kushner’s tremendous skills as a novelist, the novel never reads like a character correlative to these statistics. “To make a character ring true,” the novelist Muriel Spark said, “it needs to, must be in some way, contradictory, somewhere a paradox.” Romy nearly self-combusts from the contradictions she numbingly resigns herself to endure. She recognizes her job as a stripper at the seedy Mars Room has irrevocably “dimmed” her glow but she continues to work there. When she finally sets up a new life in San Francisco, she recognizes she should steer clear of the leering handyman who keeps coming around but agrees to get in his truck one Saturday anyhow.
Kushner could have begun the novel with the dramatic sequence of events that lead Romy to her perfunctory trial with a public defender, the scant consideration given to how long the man she killed had been stalking her. Instead, Kushner carefully releases the details in sync with the slow pace of Romy’s days “hovering” with three others in “their turkey cages” as she aches for Jackson, the young son she left in her mother’s care. With distressing vividness, she recalls Jackson at birth, how he “bobbled his head on his neck, his big wet blue eyes gazing at me in myopic wonder.”
As Romy begins her two consecutive life sentences at the fictional Stanville Correctional Facility in California’s Central Valley, her flashbacks shift between her wistful memories of Jackson, her own childhood, and the company of men in her life since then. Paramount among them are Creep Kennedy, her most menacing customer at the Mars Room, and a boyfriend named Jimmy Darling, who drops away after her arrest. “He moved me to the past,” Romy says. “I’d known it when I heard his voice over the county jail phone.”
Other characters join the narrative, all written with the absorbing specificity and scope that have established Kushner as one of the most celebrated contemporary novelists in the country. As in “The Flamethrowers” and “Telex From Cuba,” she peppers each perspective with all sorts of unexpected observations to distinguish the voices and worldviews of her characters, the vastly different relationships each one has to the U.S. correctional system.
Doc, a corrupt LAPD cop convicted of homicide, narrates several sections after receiving a severe beating from a fellow inmate. Doc’s traumatic brain injury reduces his thoughts to “country music stars, who roamed in his mind like ponies.” The wit and surprise of this image pull the reader immediately into Doc’s warped inner world, the “reunion feeling crowding into his mind” full of singers like Dolly Parton and Skeeter Davis “gathering on the stage for an all-star number.”
Doc provides a striking contrast to conflicted, self-recriminating Gordon, a civilian GED teacher who feels guilty about his increasing attraction to Romy but continues to seek her out. Gordon explains Romy to himself as a young woman who “did not know to use her beauty to manipulate, didn’t even know she was beautiful.” Romy’s fellow inmates urge her to recognize her prettiness as a tool as well, and instruct her on how to wield it with Gordon. Moving between their perspectives, Kushner conveys the nuanced, transactional nature of Romy and Gordon’s encounters without ever explicitly stating it. As a result, it is the reader who must intuit who is leveraging who in any given scene.
At the women’s correctional facility where I taught, there was a guard who ranked the inmates’ IDs according to sexual appeal as each student surrendered hers in order to enter our classroom. The daily hostility between the inmates and the guards felt as toxic as a continuous monoxide leak, bound to lead to someone’s death if even one door closed for longer than usual. Kushner returns throughout the novel to the exhausting, constant possibility of violence in each separate containment area in Stanville, especially after the much-debated arrival of a trans woman named Serenity Smith.
“When they moved her,” Kushner writes, “it was like they were moving someone on death row, double escort, with sharpshooters trained on her from the gun towers. Women screamed obscenities. She was gassed with jars of urine.” Romy sympathizes with Serenity’s predicament, but as in everything, remains conflicted, claiming, “I wasn’t excited to possibly share a room with a woman who had been a man,” adding a crude reference to Serenity’s anatomy.
Ultimately, Serenity’s fate impacts Romy’s, as all our fates inevitably connect. Kushner has spoken in interviews about the relationships and visits that contributed to her extensive knowledge of the carceral system and the rising number of women it confines each year. In “The Mars Room,” she has transformed that knowledge into a novel of great urgency and devastation.
Novey is the author of the novel “Ways to Disappear.” Her second, “Those Who Knew,” is forthcoming in fall 2018.
“The Mars Room”
Scribner: 352 pp., $27