Rachel Kushner’s two previous novels, both of which were finalists for the National Book Award, relied heavily on research, which she used skillfully to give her novels an air of authority. Telex From Cuba (2008) centred on a group of Americans in Cuba on the brink of the Castro revolution in the 1950s and The Flamethrowers (2013) was a vivid recreation of the New York art scene of the 1970s.
In her third novel, The Mars Room, Kushner is closer to the present day but also makes use of a good deal of research. The time is mostly the late 1990s and the early years of the 2000s. The novel’s main setting is an enormous women’s prison in California, a world few people have intimate knowledge of. As Kushner said in a recent New Yorker profile, she made dozens of visits to Chowchilla Prison (the largest women’s prison in the world) and befriended many inmates and ex-inmates to make sure that her novel reflected their reality.
This approach has many benefits but many perils as well. There are long passages in the book where I found myself bogged down by the details of prison life. There were times when Kushner’s extensive research became so foregrounded that the novel felt more like non-fiction than a novel. This is particularly the case in the backstories for some of the minor characters. Paradoxically, many of them felt less “real” to me as characters by feeling more “real” to me as real people.
Having said that, Kushner’s obvious sympathy for and empathy with her characters and her anger at the inhuman carceral system that they have become caught up in make The Mars Room an emotional and compulsive reading experience that forces readers to confront human beings that our society wants us to forget or ignore.
The novel opens with a “Chain Night,” where a busload of 60 shackled women prisoners are being transported by bus in the dead of night from the county jail in Los Angeles to Stanville women’s prison where they will serve their sentences, often life sentences. One of the prisoners is Romy Hall, sentenced to serve the unbelievable term of two consecutive life sentences plus six years.
“They were moving us at that hour for a reason,” Romy tells us, “for many reasons. If they could have shot us to the prison in a capsule they would have. Anything to shield the regular people from having to look at us, a crew of cuffed and chained women on a sheriff’s department bus.”
The prison, which houses thousands of women, is in a remote part of California, difficult to access, especially for poor people with no reliable transportation or money for gas, food or a motel along the way. So, most inmates rarely get visitors. They can’t access the internet or phone anyone who doesn’t already have an approved prison services phone app.
The utter abandonment of the Stanville inmates in this complex, closed and openly hostile eco-system is one of the novel’s strongest elements. The novel moves at a slow pace between the regimented life in the prison to flashbacks of life in “the free world.”
Romy, like many of the inmates, seems almost pre-programmed to have been destined for prison. She grew up poor in San Francisco with an inattentive single mother and got into drugs and petty crime early.
“It grabbed me by the back of the head with its firm clench,” she says of her first experience of heroin, “rubber tongs, then warmth spread down through me. I broke into the most relaxing sweat of my life. I fell in love. I don’t miss those years. I’m just telling you.”
She is clearly intelligent but didn’t find a traditional career path. Instead, she wound up as a lap dancer at The Mars Room, a sleazy strip club on San Francisco’s Market Street. The Mars Room is “definitely the worst and most notorious, the very seediest and most circuslike place there is,” says Romy looking back. “If you’d showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos weren’t misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night.”
Romy has a son, Jackson, who is five when she is arrested and is in her mother’s care. But when her mother dies while Romy is at Stanville he gets swallowed up in the foster care system and Romy is not allowed to know what has happened to him, losing the one thing that gave her hope, “the grain of reality in the centre of my thoughts.”
In her desperation she turns for help to Gordon Hauser, a failed PhD student who takes a job teaching GED at the prison, living in a one-room cabin nearby. Gordon is the only character in the book who is a part of life at Stanville but can go home at night.
He is a complex and well-drawn character. He means well but is naive and overly needy. He is also lonely and depressed (and reading more Ted Kaczynski than Henry Thoreau, his supposed dissertation subject). He is attracted to Romy but doesn’t realize how much she is, out of necessity, manipulating him.
Romy, like most of the other women in the prison is guilty. She killed her stalker in circumstances that could be construed as self-defence, but was given a pathetic defence by a harried and incompetent public defender.
Near the end of the book Gordon muses about one of his students, Button Sanchez, a youth offender doing life:
“The word violence was depleted and generic from overuse and yet it still had power, still meant something, but multiple things. There were stark acts of it: beating a person to death. And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools. There were large-scale acts of it, the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in a single year, for a specious war of lies and bungling, a war that might have no end, but according to prosecutors, the real monsters were teenagers like Button Sanchez. In the primitive part of the mind, violence was body-to-body, punching and clubbing and cutting. Those people went to prison. Were not offered any kind of mercy.”
That sums up the message of this harrowing, sad and at times brilliant book. It also highlights the novel’s occasional fault of being overly didactic.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, Scribner 338pp.