The Mars Room
by Rachel Kushner (2018)
Scribner (2018)
352 pp

Chain Night happens once a week on Thursdays. Once a week the defining moment for sixty women takes place. For some of the sixty, that defining moment happens over and over. For them it is routine. For me it happened only once. I was woken at two a.m. and shackled and counted, Romy Leslie Hall, inmate W314159, and lined up with the others for an all-night ride up the valley. As our bus exited the jail perimeter, I glued myself to the mesh-reinforced window to try to see the world. There wasn’t much to look at. Underpasses and on-ramps, dark, deserted boulevards. No one was on the street. We were passing through a moment in the night so remote that traffic lights had ceased to go from green to red and merely blinked a constant yellow. Another car came alongside. It had no lights. It surged past the bus, a dark thing with demonic energy. There was a girl on my unit in county who got life for nothing but driving. She wasn’t the shooter, she would tell anyone who’d listen. She wasn’t the shooter. All she did was drive the car. That was it. They’d used license plate reader technology. They had it on video surveillance. What they had was an image of the car, at night, moving along a street, first with lights on, then with lights off. If the driver cuts the lights, that is premeditation. If the driver cuts the lights, it’s murder.

I’m yet to get to her debut, Telex from Cuba, but Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, was often brilliant, clearly the work of a major talent. Its flaws — occasional purple stretches — are in little evidence in the follow-up, The Mars Room, deservedly longlisted for the Booker Prize, and surely a potential winner.

Kushner’s influences — less lightly worn in her previous book — would seem to include Robert Stone, Stephen Wright, Russell Banks, Joy Williams, Joan Didion, and Don DeLillo. With lesser writers such evident stylistic forebears might expose mimicry in lieu of an original voice. Kushner harnesses all that’s good about the aforementioned while managing to avoid pastiche or derivation. Amongst a slew of interesting women writers coming out of the United States — including, for example, Emma Cline, Lauren Groff, Ottessa Moshfegh — Kushner is the better stylist, and the most complete novelist.

The Mars Room does a bit of everything. It’s surely what David Foster Wallace was talking about when he referred to a lack of novels that both challenge and entertain, that move as well as provoke. It’s a compulsive read without eschewing complexity (hence the Stone comparison); it’s full of confrontational, Albee-esque dialogue; it’s funny and affecting. It’s tight but expansive.

Romy has murdered a stalker, a Vietnam veteran who fixated on her as his only means of respite during regular visits to strip club The Mars Room. It’s a place the very existence of, in a culture designed by men to salve their needs at the expense of pawed at, objectified women, Romy abhors. Her life has led her into a place where she trades the commodification of herself for cash, in an industry that can only exacerbate her disdain for men. This central conceit, a woman conscious of a patriarchy in which she has to hustle, ill-equipped for a traditional livelihood after an inadequate and traumatic upbringing, whilst also perpetuating stereotypes and validating a male verdict of women as playthings, is one of the insoluble aspects of the novel that make it work so well. It sets up a fictive environment in which a lack of ready answers seems appropriate; there’s no resolution to the issues Kushner contends with.

When Romy retaliates against a man she only tolerated within the confines of her former workplace, who can’t or doesn’t want to see the boundaries between fantasy and reality, she’s not only imprisoned and demonised, but taken from her son, who now lives with her mother, a woman she can’t abide but who she knows will at least have his best interests at heart. When the mother dies, the son is orphaned, and she isn’t allowed to discover his whereabouts or his subsequent fate.

As part of a counterpoint narrative, we switch between Romy and Gordon Hauser, an idealistic and naïve teacher who ends up drifting into a role as prison tutor. Gordon develops a soft spot for Romy, who in turn sees Gordon as a potential surrogate for her son. It’s a longshot, but this kind of scenario has apparently worked out previously, and Romy tries to play Gordon, who she feels nothing for, in the hope that her son, if not herself, can be saved.

So there’s a convincing element of drama slowly unfolding, interspersed with Romy’s recollections of an earlier life, and her daily life as a prisoner without hope of release. There will come a point when Romy gives up any hope of resolution and takes matters into her own hands. Until then we get to know her and her proxy family of criminals as they attempt to endure their plight as collectively forgotten, their humanity rescinded.

One of the ways in which the prisoners pay their way — and your general outlook will inform whether or not this is a pithy and just means of restitution, or further crushing of an already flogged spirit — is by building the furniture and accouterments that make up a courtroom. So, they file into woodworking class to make gavels, judges’ benches, courtroom panels, etc. Kushner simply lays this kind of detail out — you have to decide what, if anything, it means. For me the detail requires no emphasis, and the novel generally does this: uses such basic details to flesh out a larger agony. These women had little chance to begin with, and having vindicated a caricaturist’s impression of what their fate might entail, have their noses repetitively rubbed in their own failures.

Lest these women rebuild their lives in preparation for an often unlikely release (in the case of Romy, she will die in prison, two life sentences and an additional six years, those six years reverberating at their every mention with cruel, wry irrelevance) they are already damned as worthless, marshaled and prodded through interminable days. That their spirit remains to at least some degree buoyant, their sense of injustice not entirely trampled, is revealed in their often surprising and selfless responses to horrors that overstep an already vastly-modified mark.

The pregnant girl was clutching her stomach and crying out. Jones glanced at her and licked her thumb and turned a page of the handbook, continuing to read. She had to read the whole eighty-page guide and the guide to the guide every week on Fridays when the new busload arrived, and so she knew it well, could speed-read it in order to take a longer break. The pregnant girl interrupted Jones’s reading of the rules by going into labor.

I told you that women enjoy participating in the punishment of their fellow prisoners, but it’s not always true. Some of us helped that day in receiving. Jones told everyone to stay seated and wait for medical. Fernandez ignored Jones’s orders and went to help the girl, the same girl she’d been yelling at on the bus. So did I. It was my chance to break away from Laura Lipp. And I could not bear to watch this helpless kid suffer alone. She was screaming in agony.

Fernandez and I each held a hand. Conan blocked Jones and the other receiving cops from getting near us. When they pepper-sprayed Conan, he only grew more irate. He shoved Jones to the ground. An alarm sounded. I kept on talking to the girl. I reminded her to breathe. She said “no” over and over, like she didn’t want to have a baby, like she could prevent the future from merging into the now. Cops poured into our unit. Four of them tackled Conan. You’re going to be all right, I kept telling the girl. It wasn’t true, since she was in prison, but I comforted her as best I could, until more cops streamed in and yanked me away from her and put me in restraints. They were not attending to the girl in labor; she was alone and crying out in pain. Fernandez, like Conan, was courageous. They sprayed her and she didn’t seem to notice. She kept resisting them until they Tasered her and put her in a cage.

I was put in a cage, too. The cages were not quite big enough and I had to keep my head low on my neck. I had become the turkey on the freeway. Conan was practically stuffed into the thing. Conan in a cage was even worse than Conan in a muumuu. He filled the cage, all glare and rippling muscle. We were all three going to administrative segregation. My first day in prison, and I had already blown my parole board hearing, which was in thirty-seven years.

Your ability to enjoy The Mars Room may partially depend on how likely you are to accept murderers as likable protagonists, motive aside. This is a novel — and for me it’s part of the reason it’s so good — that refuses to judge or measure its players, who happen to be incarcerated criminals. So it’s inevitably, by virtue of failing to offer any means of opprobrium or fictional restitution by way of punishing the worst of the cons, a liberal novel. If your political persuasion helps you to consider laws-breakers as inherently or automatically lesser beings, you might not be able to get fully on-board. You may even resent Kushner for going to all this trouble (she spent years gathering research, spending time with ex-cons, learning relevant minutiae).

So as well as being an exceptionally stylish work, it’s an eye-opener. Some readers have quibbled over a perceived lack of “prison insight,” but I took plenty of interesting discoveries from The Mars Room. Kushner has talked about the “communal intelligence” mass incarceration necessitates, and without wanting to verge on mawkishness or Papillon-esque considerations of “the human spirit,” to watch the inmates work ingeniously as a single organism by flushing plastic-wrapped goods up and down plumbing systems, or instantly forgetting personal beefs to protect a pregnant teenager reveals, to me at least, resourcefulness and at least the remnants of some kind of moral imperative that not even the often nightmarish lives of some of these inmates has been able to extinguish. There are the kind of hierarchies and social lines drawn that you might expect, but also, as Kushner has it (and as mentioned, she’s done the research), the kind of interconnectivity and dare I say it family borne out of mutual despair and need.

I was worried about the finale, desperately hoping it would avoid any kind of neat resolution. The ending we’re given is hard to interpret, and without spoiling things, it’s an ending that worked for me, abstracted, circular, a finale fit for a book powerful and replete enough to render the idea of a satisfying finale almost beside the point. This is a seismic book that works as an involving story, as well as a hymn to injustice, the sheer arbitrariness of this and any age, a world that doesn’t really work but in which things have been put in place to effect the semblance of order and hierarchy. These are lives that we’re encouraged to forget about, casually ignore what led to the moment at which things finally turned, beyond which they become to many less human, less rightful of any claim to anything, even their children. Rachel Kushner dignifies the value of lives that are not designated criminal in a void but across a freighted, imperfect moral compass. She asks us to ask how things happen to happen, why, and what the effect of those acts, or non-acts, ultimately are. To do that while simultaneously producing an exceptional work of art deserves serious respect.

I said everything was fine but nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me. The problem was not moral. It was nothing to do with morality. These men dimmed my glow. Made me numb to touch, and angry. I gave, and got something in exchange, but it was never enough. I extracted from the wallets — which was how I thought of the men, as walking wallets — as much as I possibly could. The knowledge that it was not a fair exchange coated me in a certain film. Something brewed in me over the years I worked at the Mars Room, sitting on laps, deep into this flawed exchange. This thing in me brewed and foamed. And when I directed it — a decision that was never made; instead, instincts took over — that was it.

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