When a particular quotation keeps appearing before your eyes, it must be speaking to the times. This year I keep coming across a line of Stendhal’s: “Politics in a literary work, is like a gunshot in the middle of a concert, something vulgar, and however, something which is impossible to ignore.” It pops up in Lisa Halliday’s recent Asymmetry, and it was in my head as I was reading Rachel Kushner’s new novel of incarceration, The Mars Room. It’s a book that urgently embraces the vulgar and leaves you with the feeling that the concert has been staged so that the reader will hear the gunshots fired.
All three of Kushner’s novels are political, but in her previous novels, both historical fiction, politics was glimpsed at a remove of at least a few decades: Telex from Cuba (2008) was set in Cuba on the eve of revolution; The Flamethrowers linked the proto-Fascist futurist avant-garde of post-World War I Italy to the leftist avant-garde of 1970s New York. The Mars Room unfolds mostly in California during the George W. Bush administration (not exactly a historical novel, then; the German term is Zeitroman: a fiction about the times the author has lived through). It examines conditions that are ongoing and — in terms of statistics to do with incarceration, including incarceration of women — worsening. The novel’s matrix radiates out from Stanville, a women’s prison in the Central Valley where sometime-narrator Romy Hall is serving two life sentences plus six years for killing a man who was stalking her.
The novel’s timeline stretches back through Romy’s childhood and her days as a dancer at the San Francisco strip club that gives the book its title, and it takes in many characters both central and peripheral to her story. We meet the man who stalked her, Kurt Kennedy, and get a glimpse of his addled (from booze, and painkillers when he can get his hands on them), and malignantly obsessive mind. We meet the childhood friends Romy ran with on the streets of San Francisco’s Sunset District in the 1980s; Jimmy Darling, a filmmaker and art school instructor who was “slumming” with Romy noncommittally; and Jackson, her son from an affair with a bouncer at another club (a deadbeat soon dead of an overdose), now orphaned after the death of Romy’s mother and lost to her as a ward of the state. At Stanville a set of vividly drawn inmates gather around Romy in the form of a makeshift family; other inmates hover menacingly in their orbit. There’s also Gordon Hauser, a grad school dropout who teaches Romy’s prison class, lives alone in a mountain shack, and contemplates the difference between Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski. Threaded loosely to the main narrative is the story of Doc, a corrupt cop serving time for his work as a contract killer for another inmate at Stanville.
Kushner is an admirer of Don DeLillo’s 1997 masterpiece Underworld, and provided a succinct description of it in a 2015 essay for the Guardian: “while big structures of history shape the characters (as they do us), this novel is also filled with glimpses of people alone and together with their private faiths, their unspeakable thoughts, artfully converted to language, into naked epiphany, subtle and precise.” This could also serve as a description of Kushner’s books, or what they’re attempting, and the crux of these novels is the way they balance the structural and the private. In The Flamethrowers most of the characters are artists, and the novel is infused with ideas about art that sometimes overwhelm their private lives, including ideas about the blurring of art and life. The characters at times seem like ciphers for the author’s art historical project. The ideas sparkle but the plotting — especially a strand to do with adultery — is thin by comparison. There’s a similar imbalance at work in The Mars Room.
The politics of The Mars Room are pessimistic, and Kushner’s vision of the American carceral archipelago and the justice system in general is relentlessly and convincingly grim. Romy was terrorized by the man she killed, but that doesn’t come into her case in court, largely because her public defender is old, tired, incompetent, and possibly drunk. She and her mother lack the resources to afford anything better, she’s unwilling to accept a plea bargain, and once convicted she has no recourse to appeal. Once she arrives at Stanville, she’s disciplined by indifferent or sadistic guards and things only get worse. Kushner’s narrative attention turns to the economy of prison life in forensic detail. To anyone without experience of prison this will be jarring and appalling. Within the texture of the novel, it’s also bluntly didactic.
Stanville’s codes and transactions are conjured in a way that mimics the bourgeois novel of manners, but the inversion has the effect of distracting you from the experience of imprisonment, even as you sense you’re being tapped on the shoulder and told, This is what it’s like to be in prison. It’s an authenticity that diminishes as the particulars of deprivation accumulate.
Like Reno — who narrates most of The Flamethrowers and represents the young woman who moves to New York with as much ambition as innocence but too often seems just a blank slate — Romy comes across as more concept than character. She’s a victim of circumstance (no way out of dancing at the Mars Room, then no way out of being stalked) until she’s a victim of the justice system. She’s undeniably sympathetic but not always interesting. We hear a lot of anecdotes from her past life, but in bits that lose their energy as soon as they’re told. Her son is relentlessly idealized until he seems less like a boy than a device to pull at readers’ and characters’ heartstrings. It’s a churlish thing to say about the way a mother thinks of a son from whom she’s been separated for years (and perhaps permanently), but it’s striking in contrast to the rest of the novel’s cast. The voices of other inmates at Stanville — particularly those of Conan, a black trans man who one night becomes her lover, and of Laura Lipp, a Christian girl from a middle-class family who murdered her own child and is a prison pariah — intrude with a comic force because they’re largely free of the conceptual burdens Romy bears. They’re the best thing in the book.
The novel grows more and more essayistic as it goes on, leaving aside Romy’s backstory and taking up those of peripheral characters, mostly in third person. Romy’s voice veers in register, sometimes within the same paragraph, between a hardboiled street vernacular and an explanatory, almost bureaucratic, clinical tone deployed to explain prison procedures down to the dimensions of the cage. The third-person sections are even more unstable, lurching from free indirect discourse to what seems like authorial commentary. As the predatory police officer Doc sits in his cell bunk trying to masturbate, he remembers one of his conquests on the outside: “What Doc liked about the bartender at Las Brisas was a sense of radical acceptance she offered. Sometimes ejaculating all over someone is a way for that person to communicate to you that they take you completely and totally as you are.” Are these the thoughts of a crooked cop or of the progressive therapist he never had the luck to meet? These lapses in point of view add to the sense that we’re being taught a lesson (one we’d probably agree with, about cycles of abuse) more than we’re being told a story.
Of course, there can be something bracing about being taught a lesson, with meticulously researched and clinically delivered details, that confirms your beliefs. That feeling is called outrage, and there’s no denying that the indignation The Mars Room aims to spark is the righteous sort.
It’s fair to want more from a novel than the sensation of nodding your head in agreement, but The Mars Room does belong to a venerable tradition in American literature. It partakes of the social realism of Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, and the naturalism of Theodore Dreiser and Jack London. Incarceration, in The Mars Room, resembles the blizzard that bites the hero of London’s To Build a Fire: an all-encompassing system that’s inescapable and deadly. The mission of these writers was to open the eyes of middle-class readers to shadowy iniquities, to the plights of fellow citizens crushed by larger forces. That’s a task the American novel hasn’t assumed in a long time, but it remains alive in journalism, film, and television.
Kushner invokes other literary traditions within The Mars Room as its narrative takes on an increasing strain of cultural criticism. Little essays about country music and Dostoevsky are placed in the minds of characters, showing a somewhat heavy authorial hand. In prison GED class, Gordon gives Romy books to read, among them Pick-Up by Charles Willeford and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. Inviting comparisons to Willeford’s brutal pulp and Johnson’s numinous lyricism suggest other avenues The Mars Room might have taken.
Without either a strong plot (a thin one does arise late in the book) or a religious framework, the novel is rarely entertaining or beautiful. But perhaps suspense and beauty are mere luxuries when the mission is righteous.
*A version of this article appears in the May 14, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!