What does it mean to be a prisoner in the land of the free? This is the question Rachel Kushner asks us to consider in her third novel, The Mars Room, a bleak and bitter interrogation of the socioeconomic structures, invisible but tyrannical, that regulate contemporary America. The belief that everyone born under the Stars and Stripes has the freedom to choose their own path underpins the American Dream. But through the story of Romy Hall, a sometime lap dancer and single mother serving out two consecutive life sentences in the dust and heat of Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California, Kushner effectively dismantles the notion. She shows that for a whole stratum of society, choice is not only an illusion, but also one that is turned back on them, a tool employed to subjugate them further. ‘Ms Hall, I know it’s tough,’ says a prison counsellor, defending the decision to refuse to tell Romy where her son is, following the news that Romy’s mother – who is also the boy’s guardian – has been killed in a car accident, ‘but your situation is due one hundred percent to the choices you made … If you’d wanted to be a responsible parent, you would have made different choices.’
Over the course of the novel, which intercuts scenes in prison with Romy’s recollections of her earlier life, Kushner invites us to consider the choices Romy made – and the question of whether other options were truly open to her. As a child in San Francisco, Romy grew up with picture-postcard views of ‘the matte red points of the Golden Gate Bridge’ and ‘the steep, green-crinkled folds of the Marin Headlands’, but for her, the city’s icons had no more heft than a stage set. At street level, away from the tourist traps, the place appears rough-hewn and grimy, an indifferent backdrop for a jagged adolescence that’s sketched in a series of vivid snapshots: ‘Being sick from Bacardi 151 and splitting my chin open on a concrete barrier in Minipark. Someone overdosing in a bedroom in the white people projects on the Great Highway. Someone holding a loaded gun to my head for no reason in Big Rec, where people played baseball in the park.’ There’s no ease and little beauty; her mother is distracted and school barely registers, so Romy dines on Hostess pies and runs wild. She’s smart, but she’s stuck; for kids like her, there’s no way out. But she keeps her head above water: while friends are lost to overdoses, she works at a strip bar (the Mars Room of the title), rents her own place and, when she gets pregnant, ditches the drugs and her deadbeat boyfriend and raises her son on her wages. She makes the best of what she has. When a Mars Room regular becomes infatuated with her to the point of obsession, she decides to leave San Francisco behind and take flight with her son to LA. It’s not until her stalker tracks her down and sets in motion the series of events that carries her to Stanville that she comes to understand how utterly powerless she is.
Kushner’s depiction of the US criminal justice system is a masterclass in banal horror. The rule of law and a fair hearing, it quickly becomes apparent, are luxuries available only to the rich; for people like Romy, they’re just another illusion. To describe her experience as Kafkaesque would be to dignify it – to suggest that she is at least being taken seriously. Instead, she is treated with a disregard so profound as to be dehumanising. Unable to afford a lawyer, Romy is assigned a public defender, whom she meets on the day of her trial. She’s forbidden to testify, so the jury learns none of the circumstances that led to her crime. Because her son was present, she’s charged with ‘child endangerment’ – despite the fact that she was seeking to protect him. The process is an awful simulacrum of justice. In prison, the rules are arbitrary and often cruel, but there is at least a clarity to the situation: the pretence that the inmates have any jurisdiction over their lives has been dropped; everyone finally knows where they stand. Slowly, chapter by chapter, Kushner raises our eyes to the horizon, building out from Romy’s story to those of the other prisoners, the guards, a cop who was himself put away, a liberal educator whose relationship with Romy is intriguingly ambiguous and, finally, Romy’s stalker himself, washed-up, weak and terrifyingly unstable. Carefully, thoughtfully, Kushner establishes a web of connections and sympathies between them. At times it’s almost enough to distract us from the reality they’re all caught in together.
Prison novels are a familiar form, but with The Mars Room Kushner largely succeeds in breaking new ground. If there’s a question mark at all, it’s over Romy herself and whether, via her, Kushner has given us too easy a ride: whether her voice is too literate, too philosophical, to be wholly plausible; whether her crime is too forgivable; whether her status as the mother of a young boy is too straightforwardly sympathetic. But these are all reflections that come after the fact. Kushner’s skill as a storyteller is such that we will Romy on as, in the closing chapters, she attempts one last roll of the dice. This is a powerful, provoking novel – elegantly written, compelling and persuasive.