The preposterously talented Rachel Kushner, who I consider to be America’s finest young writer, has returned with her astonishingly fine new novel “The Mars Room”. (We note that she is not related to President Trump’s not-so-talented son-in-law, Jared Kushner). This novel is so finely researched, like Jennifer Egan’s most recent novel about life in and around the Brooklyn Navy Yards (“Manhattan Beach”) that it makes reading “The Mars Room” that much more impressive.
The narrator/protagonist is a woman named Romy Hall, whose childhood and adolescence in San Francisco absolutely trashes most people’s ideas of the loveliness of San Francisco, one of America’s leading tourist destinations; Hall comes from the underbelly of that city, which she finds expensive, smug, and difficult to live in. After a difficult childhood, she finds work in The Mars Room, really a stripper club, where her adolescent survival skills/street smarts keep her detached from the work and indifferent to the kinds of men who frequent such joints. But Kushner’s descriptions of working in said club include magnificent writing, astute observations, and that touch of irony common to Kushner’s characters, which she injects into Hall, though it feels partly Kushner herself. If there’s one possible flaw in this novel, and it’s not a big one, it’s Kushner’s tendency to irony as a survival skill, but perhaps it’s beneficial to Hall , who is a survivor. While Hall works at this club, a man begins to harass and stalk her; he’s a Vietnam vet, disabled, but manages to find her after work and, most horrifyingly, again after Hall moves to LA to escape him. And the only way she finds to escape him is to kill him.
Thus Hall enters what passes for a Justice system in this country, recently under much scrutiny from progressives, from groups such as Black Lives Matter, and the more liberal media. Her public defender, whom she barely knows, manages to skip the harassment/stalking and Hall is given two consecutive life sentences for murdering an honored and disabled veteran–or so he is presented by the prosecutor in the case. (The likelihood of anyone poor getting either adequate representation in court or a fair trial is a very important subtext of this novel and Kushner’s terrific at pointing out these flaws). And so Hall enters the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in Central California; the novel actually begins with the women prisoners handcuffed on a bus taking them there; the dialogue–or lack thereof–between some of these women prisoners is brilliant, and we learn that the less each woman prisoner knows about the others, the likelier their time spent together will go reasonably well. And , of course, Hall is put into a cage (recently much in the news as American border guards/immigration officers have been putting migrant children in same, separated from their parents; Kushner’s so astute at which issues to bring up in her novel) , for remarks to guards that to the reader make sense, but then so many of the guards in this prison are sadists). That Rachel Kushner chose the America prison system in which to set this novel is a brilliant stroke alone.
Much of the novel then involves the interaction between and amongst the women prisoners, who learn how to communicate, for example, by flushing documents and/or photos through the plumbing system in the prison toilets, and/or speaking in the corners of walls/ceilings as that’s how sound carries. Cruelty and isolation are two of the worst problems Hall will find in prison, though many of her prison narratives are utterly fascinating, if often horrifying. Hall reviews pieces of her life in her long, dull days there, while also agonizing over the whereabouts of her son Jackson, who’s even removed from her legally–she’s no longer considered even the birth mother–and her struggles to find legal answers to the child’s whereabouts are unbearably sad. We presume that Jackson is lost in the system, much as we fear that migrant children will currently never be reconciled with their own parents.
Hall is also often witty and acerbic and ironic and a survivor, but at terrible cost and in situations often with arbitrary authority doing arbitrary (but always cruel) things just because they can get away with things. The Mars Room is a stinging indictment of America’s alleged Justice system, and a very effective one at that. That the women in prison often learn to bond and help one another (and sometimes the opposite) does provide some needed comic relief and some admirable writing on Kushner’s part. If you read The Mars Room, you’ll be reading America’s finest young writer at her finest (again)–her previous novel The Flamethrower was one of the finest novels of the past decade), while learning a great deal about this country’s dysfunctional legal/prison system; the novel won’t let us be as detached as most of us are on a daily basis from these shameful aspects of America today. The Mars Room is an astonishing novel, showcasing Rachel Kushner’s amazing talents yet again.