Rachel Kushner’s novels defy categorization. Her work reads easily but has a complexity that resists summation. She breaks rules and changes minds. This novel is both heavy and light at the same time, like a women’s prison in the Central Valley of California is both tragic and absurd. However, only for the untethered is it the joke it sometimes appears.
Kushner is for adults. She talks about sex and violence in a way that only adults will understand. Deviance is something else. Criminality is different again. But where sex and intimacy intersect in the Venn circle of our lives, we understand there is a corona of otherness around each of us. Consent is required. Absent that consent, all kinds of wrongdoing can occur.
This novel is about incarceration. It does not take sides; that is done by the courts. It tells us who people are before we know what they’ve done. That fits in exactly with the theme in Bryan Stevenson’s nonfiction Just Mercy, that "each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done.”
Romy Leslie Hall was an exotic dancer. She’d called herself Vanessa at work. She was in maximum now, a lifer with no possibility of parole. There were others in there with her who were likewise unwilling to be screwed with, but otherwise were perfectly ordinary human beings, with needs, wants, and aspirations.
The pace is slow. We are reading, however long it takes, because of the obvious intelligence behind the words, the insights, the news from inside. Romy’s not going anywhere. This story could take forever, as long as she wants to drag it out. Romy is a mother. She left her four-year-old, a son, with her own mother, not by choice. She’d been hauled away in cuffs in front of her son.
What Kushner does particularly well here is hold up one-way glass for readers to see themselves and at other times we look into the prison. I could see myself, hear myself, when Kushner mentioned the guards admonishments
“Ms. Hall, I know it’s tough, but your situation is due one hundred percent to choices you made and actions you took. If you’d wanted to be a responsible parent, you would have made different choices.”In the course of this story we see how, in fact, choices were made long before Romy had any say in the matter. The rest just plays out predictably, according to some formula that hasn’t changed for millennia. Romy’s choices all look bad, and the consequences all poor, too.
The one bright light in her life is her son, Jackson. Jackson came out of the womb optimistic, a happy baby. If you’ve ever seen a happy baby, you’ll know right away why it was so important for Romy to protect him, and why he was her lifesaver.
We learn about the personnel in a prison environment: guards, GED teachers, intake counselors. “Counselor doesn’t mean someone who counsels.” Counselors determine the security classification of the prisoners. Romy found herself “pleading with [the counselor] sadist in a little girl voice” in order to find out what happened to her son. The pressures of the place screwed with Romy, changing outcomes.
At first Romy’s chapters are interspersed with lists of prison rules, just to give us a sense of how restrictive the environment is. We run our eyes down the list, immediately thinking of ways to get around the regulations. We grow resentful, cynical, testy. “No arguments,” the sign says. “No loud laughing or boisterousness.” “No crying.”
Eventually, after the rules have done their job, we are occasionally treated to a short chapter lifted from mad loner Ted Kaczynski’s diary. The GED teacher, Gordon Hauser, the Thoreau specialist living in a one-room mountain shack while he worked at the prison, was gifted the diary by a fellow Berkeley grad because of the coincidences. At first, truth be told, Kaczynski doesn’t sound mad at all. It is only when people insist upon screwing with him, with nature, with the environment in which he lives, that he loses control.
There aren’t just a few of us who might have some sympathy for Kaczynski’s point of view, though not condoning his means of pressing his point. If we lived on the earth alone, we wouldn’t need to consider the requirement we get along with others. Persuasion as a tool is a crude thing, though it did work once for Romy, with Gordon Hauser, the GED teacher.
Hauser was not a guard, not like the others. We never learn whether or not Romy was able to free her son from the system by giving Hauser the best photo she had of Jackson. Something about Hauser was still free, not foreordained, and giving him the photo meant a little piece of Jackson lived free, too. Hauser was not staying; he was leaving his job and had plans…plans to go back to school.
We can lose ourselves when we are screwed with. Both Kaczynski and Romy made clear: Do Not Screw With Me. Hauser had been screwed with, in his life, in his work, but he bore his humiliation like a flower in a rainstorm, bending to it, until the weather changed and he took charge. Doc, a former policeman-turned-inmate whose story is likewise told here, was one of those “don’t screw with me” types, until he wasn’t. He left prison, too, but not in the same way as Hauser.
The title, The Mars Room, refers to the Frisco club where Romy worked, but we also might take it to recall the isolation of Kaczynski or prison, both places distant from the world where the rest of us live, places where it is difficult to get word in or out, where people are changed by the isolation, and from which they may never get home.
The cover is a Nan Goldin photograph entitled Amanda in the Mirror, Berlin, 1992. There is a scene towards the end of this novel that has all the terror and propulsion of the escape scene in Iceberg Slim's iconic autobiography, Pimp. You are not going to want to miss either one.
This is another extraordinary fiction from someone who appears to have taken on the role of flamethrower. As Romy says,
“You learn when you’re young that evil exists. You absorb the knowledge of it. When this happens for the first time, it does not go down easy. It goes down like a horse pill.”Romy tells us women in prison like to read about women in prison. Well, this one’s for them.
My review of The Flamethrowers