Rachel Kushner’s firestorm of a third novel, “The Mars Room,” opens as 60 female prisoners are transported by bus, in the dead of night, to a different correctional facility. One woman silently dies there on the bus, slumped forward in her chains. Like a modern Ishmael, narrator Romy Leslie Hall — inmate W314159 — describes routine realities:
“There was a girl on my unit in county who got life for nothing but driving. She wasn’t the shooter. … All she did was drive the car.” With its detailed accounts of a woman’s life in prison, Kushner’s novel zooms readers instantly into this world. What brought Romy here?
It’s a sturdy storytelling formula — beginning at the (almost) end. But perhaps only Kushner could deploy it with such fresh power. Kushner’s prior two novels, “Telex from Cuba” (2008), about the violent history of sugar plantations, and “The Flamethrowers” (2013), which investigated the rubber plantations and Fascist politics that made an Italian family wealthy, rocketed her reputation as someone who, as New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner said, “can really write. Her prose has a poise and wariness and moral graininess.”
These qualities — and the sociopolitical concerns that drive them — are on dazzling display throughout “The Mars Room.” They’re embodied in Romy’s voice: dazed yet fierce, numbed but striving to recount precise truth.
Romy’s biography begins with a near-feral childhood and adolescence, roaming 1970s and ’80s San Francisco. Agreeing, at age 11, to accompany an older man to his hotel room on a cold, rainy night because she trusted he’d give her cab fare, Romy addresses a presumed listener:
“You would not have gone. I understand that. You would not have gone up to his room. … You would have been safe and dry and asleep, at home with your mother and your father who cared about you and had rules, curfews, expectations. … But if you were me … [y]ou would have gone, hopeful and stupid, to get the money for the taxi.”
“But if you were me” wields the implication — you could have, and may yet be me — that haunts every subsequent line.
Romy and her fellow inmates are deposited at a Central Valley prison near a town called Stanville, a setting made palpable (toxic farmland repurposed for institutional use) alongside details of the inmates’ lives — meals, friendships, fights, contraband, love affairs, predatory guards and cops, sadistic rules. A 15-year-old gives birth, screaming, in the prison’s receiving room: “She asked to hold her baby but her request was ignored by the medics, one of whom held the little newborn away from his body like it was a sack of garbage that might leak.”
Interleaved with these intimate portraits of prison life are scenes depicting Romy’s previous existence: caring for her young son, working as a lap dancer at the desolate (titular) San Francisco strip club — where she encounters a customer who stalks her, ultimately inciting the act that earns Romy two consecutive life sentences.
Romy has internalized a cellmate’s tattooed slogan, “Shut the Fuck Up,” as “the mandate. Which was not about sacrifice or stoicism … not about … whining. … It was about having dignity in a cage … hog-tied and Tasered. Being a person no matter what. I still believe this.”
Kushner’s book’s edge is, above all, its absolute authority in conveying the caged ordeals of the poor and marginal, of routinely brutalizing prison life: how the former feeds reliably into the latter. “What is defined as crime in our society is committed by — and against — the poorest people,” Kushner recently told The New Yorker, which excerpted the novel.
Yet, “The Mars Room” manages never to feel polemical. Scoured of sentiment yet evincing steady compassion, even for the predicament of Romy’s tormentor, it studies human loneliness, courage and, despite everything, a reflex for connection. Accelerating in pace and suspense amid brilliantly drawn settings, it is Romy’s voice — unblinking, aware, cleaving to that mandate of dignity — that abides.
The novel’s unlikely triumph? It exhilarates, for its wit, insight and furious honesty. Not least, Romy/Kushner reprises an earlier San Francisco that others may remember, hard as it was, with serious affection. Streets, eateries, characters, the Sunset, the beach, the Haight are evoked in wistful detail: “Love burgers” were “just hamburgers, except you could get curry on the bun and that part maybe was the love, a sauce that stained your hands a bright pollen yellow.” And inside a certain house on Masonic, inhabited by a group called The Scummerz, “It had never stopped being 1969.”
Joan Frank, the author of six books of fiction and a book of collected essays about writing, is a frequent reviewer of fiction and nonfiction for the San Francisco Chronicle.
RECOMMENDATIONS: Three books about prison life
- “Inside This Place, Not of It” edited by Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi (2017): Thirteen narrators describe their lives leading up to incarceration and their experiences inside.
- “Interrupted Life” by Rickie Solinger, Paula C. Johnson, Martha L. Raimon, Tina Reynolds and Ruby Tapia (2010): Voices from inside and outside the prison system describe imprisoned women’s experiences as they try to sustain family relationships, struggle for health care and basic rights and remake their lives after prison.
- “Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California” by Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007): An examination of how political and economic forces have produced a prison boom in California, where the inmate population has increased 350 percent since 1980 despite a falling crime rate.
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