The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

An obese woman, still in shackles, slumps over in her seat before rolling onto the bus’ dirty floor. A few rows away, a chained and visibly pregnant 15-year-old girl in a metal cage cries out from labor pains. She’s on the verge of delivering a child she’ll never have the chance to love.

In both cases, the women and their outbursts are ignored. Along with 58 other women, they are being transferred under the cover of darkness to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, a notorious prison in Northern California. By the next morning, all — save the obese woman who is later pronounced dead — will have been strip-searched, given ill-fitting state-issued uniforms, and assigned to bare cells. For some, it’s where they will spend the rest of their lives.

What happens behind Stanville’s walls, and the stories of how some of the women ended up in prison, are the focus of Rachel Kushner’s absorbing, in-your-face third novel, The Mars Room. As is par for the course given the subject matter, many of the scenes alternate between gritty and sparingly matter-of-fact. Most are painted in such graphic detail that it’s easy to forget the book is actually a work of fiction.

For the most part, the novel is narrated by Romy Hall, a 29-year-old stripper serving two consecutive life sentences. She killed a former customer turned stalker from the Mars Room, the nightclub in San Francisco where she worked. Though Romy comes off as mild-mannered, especially when reminiscing about Jackson, her adolescent son, the reveal that she bludgeoned disabled Vietnam vet Creep Kennedy to death with a tire iron is just one of many clues that Kushner isn’t holding anything back.

When not delving into Romy’s bleak present or periodic flashbacks to her PCP-fueled coming-of-age in San Francisco’s Sunset District, back before “the grocery store on Irving was gourmet” and “people who looked like frat boys crowded the streets, wearing college sweatshirts and sipping health drinks out of giant Styrofoam containers,” Kushner periodically introduces other characters to the narrative mix.

Some are more clearly defined than others. There’s baby killer Laura Lipp, who veers toward caricature with her “big creepy smile” and incessant yammering to anyone who will listen. Or Betty LaFrance down on death row — a leg model who had her husband murdered for his life insurance money, then got caught after putting a hit out on her hit man.

Perhaps the most memorable prisoner (and one this reviewer wanted to hear more from) is a trans convict everyone calls Conan, who mistakenly got placed “with the caballeros downtown, at Men’s central” because prison administrators were “confused” about her gender. “I got nothing to hide,” Conan tells the other inmates. “Here’s my file: counter-rehabilitatable. ODD. That’s oppositional defiance disorder. I’m criminal-minded, narcissistic, recidivistical, and uncooperative. I’m also a prunaholic and horndog.”

And lest we forget Gordon Hauser, the white graduate student who drops out of his master’s program in English literature to give back to the world (sarcasm intended) by teaching a GED course to Stanville inmates. When he isn’t entertaining forbidden thoughts of Romy or reading Ted Kaczynski’s journals in the one-room cabin he rented for his Stanville tenure (he calls it his “Thoreau year”), he’s smuggling in small tokens of kindness for some the prisoners. Of course, the fact that none of the staff can relate to Gordon doesn’t come as a surprise. The irony of his eventual decision to quit and go back to school to study social work isn’t lost on readers either.

But beyond the varied particulars of each prisoner’s rap sheet and Gordon’s in-over-his-head behavior, here’s what stands out most about the novel and what makes it unique. Like her first two books, National Book Award finalists Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, The Mars Room is impeccably researched without ever seeming dry or preachy. In a way, the journalistic-fictional hybrid seems closer to a series of well-styled, fact-based vignettes than a traditional prison novel with a simple story arc and satisfying resolution.

In order to prepare for writing the book, Kushner, who lives near the main city jail complex in Los Angeles, joined a group of criminology students on a tour of many of California’s most infamous prisons. She interviewed dozens of women to get a feel for what it’s like on the inside.

The groundwork shows. There are lists of rules sprinkled throughout (“No underwire or metal parts on brassieres, Ladies must wear brassieres, No sheer or ‘see-through’ clothing”), as well as telling details, such as prisoners communicating through air vents and exchanging contraband (ice cream sandwiches, shampoo) through the toilets. There’s also the tidbit that most white women at Stanville are approved to work in a woodshop for 22 cents an hour making jury box seating and wooden courtroom cages for in-custody defendants, while “black and brown women pull used tampons from the septic tank screen for eight cents an hour.”

Mirrors of the truth, each of these nuggets hammers home the notion that prisoners will always do what they must to survive. It’s also clear from the beatings and repeated stints in solitary that they’re mostly (unnecessarily) treated like animals.

But The Mars Room shouldn’t be perceived solely as eye candy for those wanting a bird’s-eye view into the down-and-dirty day-to-day of incarcerated women. It’s also one author’s insightful demonstration of the ways in which America’s criminal justice system is broken, not just inside this particular prison, but outside as well, in scores of other cities and towns across the country.

The Mars Room does have its flaws. Unfortunately, the ending seems like a random (though weirdly predictable) departure from an otherwise authoritative work. Still, it’s a hiccup surrounded by haunting warnings from all sides. Like this bit, from Romy:

“My life was over and I knew it was over. It was my first night in jail and I kept hoping the dreamlike state of my situation would break, that I would wake up from it. I kept not waking up into anything different from a piss-smelling mattress and slamming doors, shouting lunatics and alarms,” she thinks. “It was not about doing the time for your crime without whining or complaining. It was about having dignity in a cage. Having it hog-tied and Tasered. Being a person no matter what.”


Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (April 27, 2018)

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