Much of Rachel Kushner’s third novel is set in Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, but its title — The Mars Room — refers to a San Francisco strip club where Romy Hall, now serving two consecutive life sentences plus six years, once worked. Romy was, on the whole, not unhappy at the Mars Room, a place where she “did not have to show up on time, or smile, or obey any rules, or think of most men as anything other than losers to be exploited but who believed they were exploiting us.” For a time, Romy believed that “the Mars Room was a place where you could do what you wanted,” though that was maybe not entirely true, and even if it were true, it mostly meant that bottles broken over a boyfriend’s head and black eyes barely concealed by sunglasses went unremarked for being unremarkable:
I had arrived there on several occasions so drunk I could barely walk. Some girls, as part of their routine, spent the first several hours of their shifts nodding off in the dressing room with a makeup compact in one hand. There was no problem with that. The management did not care. There were girls who worked the audience in the standard uniform of lace bra and panties but with ratty broken-down tennis shoes instead of high heels. 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, Girls maced customers in the face and sent us all outside, hacking and choking. Once dancer got mad at d’Artagnan, the night manager, and set the dressing room on fire. She was let go, it’s true, but that was exceptional.
The Mars Room is a choice, Romy suggests, her choice. But it’s a choice with consequences, and in her reckoning with the choices she has made, or thought she was making, she begins to see that, though she “said everything was fine,” actually “nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me.”
It was not a moral problem, she’s quick to note: very little, in Romy’s estimation, is, and morality, anyway, is a luxury, a convenient shorthand for the ability to remain blind to systems — of class, of race, of sex, of available and missing opportunities — that benefit some and fail others. In Stanville, stripped of her former scaffolding, Romy, who had anyhow never been one for sentimentality, sees the structures that govern her life, in large part because she so clearly cannot escape them. Stanville is a total institution, a place that insistently flattens individuals and reduces them to types, or, really, one and only one type.
Several times, in the course of the novel, a guard suggests, with maximum righteousness, that had the imprisoned women wished to be responsible mothers, they would have acted otherwise. In the eyes of the state, the eyes of judge and jury, the eyes of wardens in stab-proof vests, these women are the criminal type, the sum of their actions — whether sex work, drug offenses, murder — which have been conflated, so that these ostensibly defining acts too come to seem like nothing more than a brutally efficient bureaucratic stamp. Everyone gets her own number, and that’s all the distinction you are going to get. (“Most go to prison not on account of their irreducible uniqueness as people but because they are part of a marginalized sector of the population who never had a chance, who were slated for it early on,” Kushner remarked in an interview with the New Yorker in 2015, when the magazine published “Fifty-Seven,” a short story of hers also set in and around a prison.)
Of course one major advantage of a novel is its ability to grant personhood where it has otherwise been denied, to explore intricacies that otherwise fail to be noted and recorded and so cease — seem to cease — to exist. In “The Mars Room,” Romy is given a background — a mother who “named [her] after a German actress who told a bank robber on a television talk show that she liked him a lot” and generally neglected her, a mother who raised her “in silence. Silence, irritation, disapproval”; a shapeless San Francisco youth, wandering, wild, casually druggy; an innate disavowal of authority — and a voice, which is vital and strong, shockingly purified of self-pity, able to render memory crystalline and nostalgia-free.
Romy sees things clearly, most of all herself, and this makes her her own best advocate, one of the great ironies of the book since Romy’s draconian sentence stems in large part through the apparent incompetence and/or exhaustion and/or overwork of her state-issued defense attorney. “He meant well,” Romy notes of the man she can only think of as “Johnson’s lawyer,” Johnson being the defendant whose case is heard before hers. But meaning well is meaningless: Johnson’s lawyer gets her two life sentences, failing to make admissible the “whole sordid history of Kurt Kennedy and his obsession with me,” failing to get the jury to understand that Kurt Kennedy, a Mars Room regular, had fixated on Romy, followed her, stalked and staked her out, drove her from San Francisco, pursued her to LA, surprised her with her young son in her arms. Yes, she killed him. But there is context.
“The Mars Room” is all context. Romy is contextualized. And so are her cellies, the women who become her life mates, a sort-of family. And so is Gordon Hauser, the disappointed grad student who teaches imprisoned women because he half-believes that “if his students could learn to think well, to enjoy reading books, some part of them would be uncaged.” And so is Doc — even Doc — the corrupt police officer who sometimes killed for fun and sometimes for profit and sometimes out of a righteous anger at those who hurt others.
Kurt Kennedy — “Creep Kennedy,” Romy calls him — gets to be heard too, one more sorry story, more proof that hurt people hurt people. And so does Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, whose journal is read by Gordon and periodically excerpted (though to what end, I’m not sure). This is undeniably Kushner’s gift: as in her much praised second novel “The Flamethrowers,” which concerned itself with the New York art world in the 70s among other things, she gives life and form to great heaps of research, combining critical acuity with the texture of lived (or well-imagined) experience.
Having spent the past several years visiting California prisons and getting to know incarcerated people, Kushner brings to “The Mars Room” a sense of authority and a moral indignation, which can sometimes have a distorting effect: in a bid to capture everything and keep things real, a certain falseness creeps in. I can certainly believe that every one of the stories is the book is inspired by or based on real stories Kushner has heard, but there is something about the combination that can bring about fatigue, that makes it hard to maintain distinctions. After a while, lives blur, and individual details, so insistently resolved, dissolve into the inchoateness of mass tragedy.
“I don’t believe that any fictional characters, no matter how memorable, how lifelike, can be talked about, even by their author, as if they were real people, with actual psychological thickness and a reality beyond the edges of the book. Fictional characters can, on occasion, seem profound, but they are almost like figures on a ground, in the sense that all anyone can know about them is what is put there to be seen,” Kushner remarked when she was asked to speculate about Romy’s motivations in the New Yorker, where an excerpt from “The Mars Room” appeared earlier this year. Very late in the novel, her parental rights having been terminated, Romy thinks of her son Jackson. She has given the child life, she concludes, and that is the opposite of nothing, which is not something, but everything. Kushner has given her characters life too, and that is surely something.
Yevgeniya Traps is a contributing editor of the Forward.