Rachel Kushner is 49 and has written three novels, which is the right number, an average of one for each decade of her adult life, when you consider the kind of novels she writes. Telex from Cuba (2008) took place among American expatriates in revolutionary Cuba, while The Flamethrowers (2013) alternated between developments in the New York City creative scene of the early 1970s and the mass protests that spread through Italy in 1977. These are books that sink deeply into a specific era and its politics, constructed from a mix of facts and authorial pet passions: motorbikes, industry, anarchy and art.
The Mars Room, Kushner’s third, brings us to her native California. Its protagonist, Romy Hall, is 29 years old and embarking on two life sentences (plus six years) at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Romy’s crime was braining to death her stalker, once a customer at a San Francisco strip club called the Mars Room, where she worked. (The six years were for “endangering” her seven-year-old son Jackson while she did it.) Even before we learn about the bloated, rapist scumbag she murdered, we expect to feel sympathy for Romy, and we do, but the fact of her crime remains. Kushner’s investigation into female incarceration takes it as a given, then asks: what next?
Early in the novel, Romy suffers a dual orphaning. She’s curtly informed by a prison guard that her mother has died in a car accident and is greeted with nothing but petty moralising when she pleads for information about her son, abandoned to state bureaucrats and a bleak future. In an inversion of the Madonna-whore complex, men are victim-saviours at Stanville. They can be lured into doing the inmates’ bidding, as “runners”, which paradoxically makes them the women’s only hope. After hearing the story of Sammy Fernandez and Keath, a dough-brained redneck Sammy courted via mail to guarantee herself a home after release, Romy develops plans for her General Educational Development teacher, Gordon Hauser. She wants him to adopt her son. It’s a long shot, but every scheme works on tight margins in prison.
Gordon is an angsty millennial foil to Henry David Thoreau. He lives in a cabin in the foothills of the western Sierra Mountains, surrounded by uranium-poisoned streams and the “burnt smell of synthetic fertiliser”. Through him, the novel asks large moral questions about imprisonment, contrasting the very real cinder-block and razor-wire walls of Stanville with Gordon’s self-imposed exile. This in turn forms part of a greater chain of comparison, between the liberating power of nature and its enslavement to profit and pollution. The cabin diaries of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski are quoted verbatim, his murderous plots in part fuelled by the despoiling of the land around him, but more by a cracked 20th-century progression from Thoreau’s desire to “live deliberately”. “I emphasise that my motivation is personal revenge on those who deprive or threaten to deprive my own autonomy,” Kaczynski says.
More than confinement, the novel asks questions about judgement and power. Romy and Gordon are joined by a cell block of vital and engrossing characters – the fast-living Betty LaFrance, for example, whose luck ran out at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, who brews moonshine in juice cartons and smuggled high stiletto heels on to death row. It is in such stories that The Mars Room comes alive, taking the reader on a hard-boiled tour through California’s forlorn neighbourhoods – to brothels, dive bars and casinos, where we encounter two of the novel’s darkest figures.
First is the bent LAPD cop DOC, a serial rapist, opiate addict and Betty LaFrance’s hit man, now dwelling in “Sensitive Needs” prison for his own protection. The second is Kurt Kennedy, who became obsessed with “Vanessa”, a dancer he encountered at the Mars Room: this is Romy. Both have suffered in their own way, and Kushner details every cycle of abuse. Yet even with these almost-caricatures of truly terrible men, the lesson of the novel leans towards relativism: “Maybe guilt and innocence were not even a real axis,” or, put more simply, “Things went wrong in people’s lives.”
The book falls down when trying to force this point, as in its final strained pages, when Romy attempts a prison break and muses on Dostoevskian themes while hiding inside a tree. Elsewhere, there are hints at practical solutions: better education, for one, and a eulogy for prisons and farming before the onset of “mass incarceration” and big agriculture. The best argument, though, is the life stories of the other inmates, whose truth is as humble as the cheap steel of their cell doors, that “life does not go off the rails because it is the rails”, and in the end, “goes where it goes”.
The Mars Room
Jonathan Cape, 340pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 13 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?