The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room is a prison novel that casts shades of black light on “normative” life. It’s brilliant, dark and an attempt at honesty that makes the recent tribe of dystopian fantasy novels seem like adolescent tales out of Pollyanna.

It’s not dystopian if it’s real. Realist fiction, when it is rendered with the proper density and complexity, as it is here, trumps any excursion into the febrile fantasy genre. The Mars Room is a way forward for contemporary fiction-a recognition of a brutality in feelings that you can’t look away from. We need to find the dark matter of fiction. Here it is.

I’m always curious when writers mention other books in their fiction. Especially in the immediacy of the first-person voice that is used so effectively in The Mars Room. We all know that first-person narration conveys an immediacy, and in this case, a cloistered claustrophobia that the authorial balance of third person can’t match. Kushner compensates for the limitation of first-person…that you can only write about what the speaking character knows or experiences…by employing multiple first-person voices. And there can be something sneaky in Kushner’s multiple first-person voices. They can sometimes sound so balanced, poised, as such reliable narrators, that I paused to ask myself: Who exactly are they addressing in this long soliloquy? Kushner can fall into pseudo third-person narration while still in first.

There are very few books available to the women in this lockup. Imagine being in jail for life with nothing to read but battered copies of Danielle Steel novels. Some better choices appear, of the order of classics that you might find on a high school reading list. But there aren’t many of them and the reading habit is largely absent among the characters in Kushner’s novel. With books it can be as if some of the prisoners were pushing around chess pieces in a trial and error attempt to learn how to play.

This is critical. Being a non-reader confers low information status in a society that is demanding increasing fluency in accessing reliable content. No matter how bright some prisoners are, you must be educated, trained, oriented. It’s one of the factors that renders some convicts close to alien life forms in the society outside the prison walls.

I’m adapting a metaphor I read in a Jonathan Lethem interview: They seem to have as much chance of survival on the outside as lobsters have of staying alive after being let loose on Fifth Avenue to fend for themselves. No wonder some prisoners, at least, would question the desirability of being released.

The iconic writer that Kushner mentions in The Mars Room in her authorial voice is Dostoevsky, and here we have it. Not Tolstoy the humanist but Dostoevsky the iconoclast, to make a distinction, that is, my apologies, only accurate if it is crude.

It’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, those novels which are more relevant with every century mark, that are Kushner’s lodestars in The Mars Room. The shadows of Dostoevsky fall over the characters in The Mars Room though they know it not-and they fall over us as her readers.

You may be a better reader than I am, but I’m going to need a second reading of The Mars Room, which would be a pleasure, to more fully appreciate its intricate structure. The novel is bookended by central character Romy Hall. At the beginning of the story by her job as a lap dancer, and at the conclusion, the backstory of her murder of Kurt Kennedy, the man who stalked her in San Francisco, who treated her lap dancer moniker as real, and who followed her to Los Angeles, where she had relocated in a futile attempt to shake him. The novel concludes with a substantial coda section that is genuinely transcendent and profoundly tragic.

The balance of the plot is a matrix of first-person prison narratives that extend their scope by relating the stories of still other prisoners who are not rendered in first-person but are told by the first-person prisoner voices. Kushner has a feel for self-enslavement that I haven’t encountered before. As in the case of the woman who is perpetually stalled in her parole hearings because her crimes are so horrific that she can’t admit to herself that she committed them. As a result, she can’t show contrition to the parole board,  a precondition of her release, since taking responsibility for her acts would crush her.

A key semiotic axis of the plot, pivoting around gender and maternity, involves a male prisoner who self-surgically migrates to a feminine identity. The state finally acknowledges the reality of her new gender identity by transferring her to the women’s prison where Romy Hall is incarcerated. But a key power clique among the women prisoners will not accept her trans presence and mark her out for a violent takedown. The resulting prison riot gives Romy Hall an opening to attempt a final, desperate break, an expression of her hopelessness, but also a final act of courage. Romy’s arrest had forced a separation from her son. Since then, her vital connection with her child has been slowly eviscerated by the state. Her son is “lost” in the social welfare system, moving farther and farther away, Romy legal and social resources to reconnect with her child are pathetically meagre. She is informed her identity as a mother has been “terminated” by the state. She is going to reconnect with her son, who may be “somewhere” in California.

No fantasized dystopia could be as bleak as the Piranesian prison bureaucracy of the state of California depicted in The Mars Room. But when I felt empathy for another suffering convict, I was pulled up short by the recollection that they had killed their own child. Incarceration is surely meant as punishment in such a case, not character reform. How can you “reform” a person who has murdered a child? How much should I care about these suffering people who have themselves inflicted so much suffering on others-even if it’s the case that they have also inflicted great suffering on themselves? I couldn’t answer that troubling question, which is worthy of Kushner’s avatar Dostoevsky.

Kushner’s greatest strength as a writer who possesses many gifts is her deep trench exploration of her dysfunctional characters. In the early pages of the novel Kushner outlines why Romy is a lap dancer, how Romy doesn’t want a relationship that involves the engagement of language, how Romy doesn’t want to be a friend, to be interpersonal, would rather rub up against a guy for money instead as her job. These are choices that spiral the character down into darkness, and anyone might make such entropic choices, at least anyone who might end up in prison. If we admit to being human, the dysfunctional character is us.

As for Romy’s nemesis, stalker Kurt Kennedy, Romy may not have wanted him but some of her life choices generated him as her own personal demon. Kurt takes a turn with a first-person voice, especially towards the end of the story, and we see what a pathological, unreliable narrator he is. His moral bankruptcy is personified by his cluelessness in refusing to accept that no means no. He follows Romy from San Francisco to L.A., waits on her porch for her to come home, and presumes she’ll be glad to see him because he’s paid for sex with her a number of times in The Mars Room.

Of course, Mars is the male god of war. The poles of gender identity in The Mars Room seem to be reduced to two bloody termination points for people who have fallen off the grid and are stuck in a forever “prison-time”, which seems like a bleak new kind of geological time, where they watch reruns of Friends.