The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner, Scribner, 2018, 336 pp
Rachel Kushner's third novel is a prison story, a woman's story, and a look at mass incarceration through those stories.
We first meet Romy Hall on a bus from a Los Angeles county jail to Stanville Women's Correctional Facility in California's Central Valley. We also meet the characters who will feature in her time in prison. Before long we learn that she has been convicted of murder and sentenced to two life sentences plus six years. No chance of parole for 37 years at which point, if parole is not granted, she will begin her second life sentence. Romy is 29 years old and the mother of one son.
Romy tells her own story throughout the novel. This is just one stroke of Cushner's genius. By the time she is telling it, Romy no longer has a voice anywhere in society. The story is one of limited opportunity due to her family life, lots of wild promiscuous behavior from 6th grade on in San Francisco, a consuming aversion to any regular jobs available to her, and a street wise brilliance on how to get by.
During the years Romy worked in a strip club, the Mars Room, giving lap dances and making good money, she picked up an admirer who became her stalker. He even followed her to Los Angeles when she moved there and continued to stalk her until, in self defense, Romy hit him with a metal rod. He died. She got a clueless and useless public defender. You know the rest.
Another stroke of genius in Cushner's writing is the way she explicates crime through all of her characters. A couple years ago I read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. I could tell that Rachel has read it too. It's not that we don't know that our criminal justice system is dysfunctional, that too many innocent people go to prison, that mass incarceration only removes the unwanted from society and from view with no attempt at rehabilitation. It's that it is too complex a societal epic fail for most of us to comprehend.
As one of the books' characters puts it: "There were stark acts of (evil): beating a person to death. And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools."
The Mars Room is in no way a pleasant novel. It is about as far from a beach read as you can get. It is a great novel, as all of Cushner's novels are, because she is gifted with the ability to absorb the ills of a social system, melt them down in her writing crucible, and transform them into the truest of stories about how those ills play out in the lives of individuals, particularly females.
(The Mars Room is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)