More than a week before the release of Rachel Kushner’s new novel, “The Mars Room,” the New York Times published an excerpt in a special 12-page section. Hauntingly illustrated and spiced with artsy pull-quotes, it was an extraordinary presentation designed to proclaim the advent of an extraordinary book. One Times book critic compared Kushner to Charles Dickens. Yet another Times review called her book “a major novel.”
Which may be the problem with this bleak tale about people trapped in the American prison system. “The Mars Room” shuffles along shackled with so much Importance that it barely has room to move. Swollen with certainty, the story tolerates little ambiguity and offers few surprises. Kushner told the New Yorker that several years ago she decided “to learn everything I could about California prisons.” And now she is determined to teach it to us, her readers, who are sentenced to more than 300 pages of despair, cruelty and illness.
The heroine is Romy Hall, a 29-year-old white woman who has just begun serving two consecutive life sentences plus six years for murdering a stalker.
“I don’t plan on living a long life,” she tells us, “or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all. The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not, until you don’t exist, and then your plans are meaningless. But not having plans doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets.”
As you might gather from that existential reflection, Romy is better educated than her cellmates, who are a handy assortment of the poor, desperate and deranged. The mother of a little boy, Romy was a lap dancer at the Mars Room in San Francisco, “the worst and most notorious, the very seediest and most circuslike place there is. . . . 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’s new comrades at the Stanville women’s prison in California include Button Sanchez, who gives birth while being admitted. And there’s Conan, who looks so masculine that she was once accidentally housed in a prison for men. Laura Lipp, a chatty woman who murdered her own child, asks Romy, “Do you know who Medea is?” And Betty LaFrance had been a leg model for Hanes pantyhose, but now makes her own vomit-smelling hooch from juice and ketchup. “Don’t forget to decant,” she advises. “It’s got to breathe.”
If you’ve seen a few episodes of “Orange Is the New Black,” you’ll recognize the structure here. Romy has no chance of getting out, but she’s frantic to make some kind of contact with her little boy, a struggle that provides a faint overarching story line. But constrained by the prison setting, the plot mostly relies on shifts in focus and point of view to create movement. Kushner cycles through the women’s tragic stories, mingling horrific anecdotes from before they were incarcerated with grim events in prison. The result is a terrifying survey of what it means to be poor and female in the United States.
The book also includes two male characters who fit neatly into the novel’s schematic plan: A depressed idealist teaches in the prison and is easily manipulated by clever female prisoners who can smell his naivete. And a crooked cop imprisoned for murder brushes through bloody recollections and fantasies that will make you crave an early release from these pages.
But the novel’s focus remains the women. They are almost all early victims of rape, often by a family member; they inevitably fall into addiction; they have few opportunities beyond sex work; they are abused by boyfriends, employers and police officers. The legal system fails to protect them and then fails to adjudicate their crimes with understanding or compassion. “The prosecutors all looked like rich, well-rested Republicans,” Romy notes in her immaculately conceived MFA voice, “while the public defenders were overworked do-gooders who arrived out of breath, late to court, dropping loose papers that already had the waffle marks of shoe prints on them from having been dropped before.”
Among Kushner’s most pointed themes is the absurdity of America’s ideology of choice, the nation’s cruel devotion to the fantasy of free will. Throughout their miserable lives, these women are beaten, tricked, thwarted and poisoned, and yet when they’re finally snagged by the prison system, some pompous man reminds them, “Your situation is due one-hundred percent to choices you made and actions you took.” Recalling a crime committed against her when she was just 11, Romy lashes out at her readers’ self-satisfied superiority: “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. Everything for you would have been different but if you were me, you would have done what I did. You would have gone, hopeful and stupid.”
These are undeniably heartbreaking stories that reflect the actual, dreadful experiences of millions of people caught in America’s poverty-and-prison industry, a machine greased by our inane drug laws. But there’s something so calculated about “The Mars Room” that even the most progressive readers are bound to feel like they’re being marched down a narrow hallway. I never felt those heavy paws in Kushner’s previous, far more dynamic novels, “Telex From Cuba” and “The Flamethrowers,” both of which were finalists for a National Book Award.
Ironically, “The Mars Room” is best in its minor incidents. A weird little chapter about Richard Nixon in Opryland, for instance, is darkly comic and unsettling, while hinting at some chilling sickness in our national spirit. Another chapter about a prison teacher who feels confused by his conflicted magnanimity is incredibly moving. And in the novel’s surprisingly poetic ending, Romy finally experiences a kind of insight beyond her capacity to articulate. In these rare spaces, we’re allowed the freedom to choose how we feel, to escape this novel’s thematic bars and experience something closer to art than instruction.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com. On May 7 at 7 p.m., Rachel Kushner will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
By Rachel Kushner
Scribner. 352 pp. $27