The Mars Room
by Rachel Kushner
Scribner 2018 (hardcover)
Three main threads weave through The Mars Room. One follows Romy Hall as she enters into prison, for life, for killing her stalker. The other two go back, one from around childhood to early teenager-hood, the third with Romy as young adult, leading up to he crime (The Mars Room is the name of the strip club in where she works). These three threads come in collage form, at least for the first part of the book, jumping around as a person's thoughts, especially as she's on the bus to life in prison, must do:
I had learned already not to cry. Two years earlier, when I was arrested, I cried uncontrollably. My life was over and I knew it was over. It was my first night in jail and I kept hoping the dreamlike state of my situation would break, that I would wake up from it. I kept on not waking up into anything different from a piss-smelling mattress and slamming doors, shouting lunatics and alarms. The girl in the cell with me, who was not a lunatic, shook me roughly to get my attention. I looked up. She turned around and lifted her jail shirt to show me her low back tattoo, her tramp stamp. It said
Shut the Fuck Up
It worked on me. I stopped crying.
It was a gentle moment with my cellmate in county. She wanted to help me. It's not everyone who can shut the fuck up, and although I tried I was not my cellmate, who I later considered a kind of saint. Not for the tattoo but the loyalty to the mandate.
Eventually the smaller pieces lengthen out into more vivid scenes, which Kushner writes equally as well. She is of course showing us that, despite what the prison guards seem indoctrinated to say (especially to themselves, so as to maybe be able to live with themselves) that these women are not in prison because choices they've made, but because being poor in America almost makes it inevitable.
Kushner weaves a fourth thread in with Gordon, an English Lit grad school dropout who teaches at the prison. He both gives us another, more outsider, point of view of prison life but also serves as a stand-in for the reader: he's not with the prison guards in thinking prison is a result of mere choices, but neither can he bring himself to entirely to trust the women he's teaching. Nor should he—they are lying and manipulating, but that's just survival, that's just how you get by when you don't have anything (and Romy realizes that being an exotic dancer was good training for prison life in how to get things from men). Gordon is torn—the women are obviously in pain in an obviously unfair system, and at least at first thinks he can help. But does he really want to help, or just make himself feel good by trying to help, and does it matter when he's just seen as a privileged middle-class nerdy white guy who can be manipulated by a little flirting.
There are a couple other threads, or chapters, from other characters' points of view, but though they don't take away anything from the story, neither do they really add anything, especially since they're not developed, and appear after readers have already latched on to Romy and Gordon. Really, it's Romy's story. Kushner makes her life so vivid that I just wanted more. Even Gordon remains mostly, though maybe necessarily, flat—we learn almost nothing of his life before the prison.
Kushner was recently featured in The New Yorker, so maybe now officially is a literary darling, but I suspect New Yorker readers might not be interested in reading just about Romy's lower-class life, pre-prison. I would—Kushner was influenced by two of my favorite writers, Charles Bukowski and Denis Johnson, both of whom get mentions in The Mars Room, and both of whom wrote almost exclusively about the lower-class/under-class life, though neither were featured in The New Yorker. But I fear that, as with the book (by Piper Kirman) and tv show Orange Is The New Black, but also with, say, Stephen King's The Shawshank Redemption, that there's a 'prison porn' fascination that middle-class readers and viewers (including me) have, which is like driving by a car crash: we want to watch and see how bad it is, but then drive on and forget it. That's not Kushner's (nor King's, nor Kirman's) intention, and in fact Kushner uses Gordon as the way to comment on how our prison system is a symptom of a larger problem, as when he's thinking about another inmate, Button Sanchez:
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.
The implication being that the prison system is part of a larger war, which never ends. In this case, a war on poor people, especially poor people of color (though Romy is white). What I would hope, and I'm sure Kushner would hope, is that reading a book like The Mars Room builds both empathy and sympathy in readers and would lead to involvement in prison reform (Kushner volunteers at a womens prison). That aside, The Mars Room is just a good book. It's more like a book of horror, except the monsters are human, or the system is the monster, created by humans. You won't feel good after reading it, but this is life in all its gritty awfulness.
If interested in prison reform, or in helping in some way, here's a list you might try: