Rachel Kushner’s magnificently hard-boiled third novel, The Mars Room, begins with its central character, 29-year-old Romy Hall, boarding a night bus for the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California’s vast, flat Central Valley. She’s shackled and serving consecutive life sentences for beating a man to death on her own front porch; she’s already spent two years in county. The protocol of this bus trip, “that defining moment for sixty women,” dictates that you don’t cry and you don’t talk. The prisoners have hammered out a code for living together, but—just Romy’s bad luck and also because she’s the only other white girl—she gets chained up next to the annoying, shiny-haired, creepily smiling Laura Lipp, who breaks all the rules by offering her full name and, in the ultimate violation of that code, talking about her crime.
There’s something about the inane prattle about her hometown and family spewing nonstop out of Laura Lipp that will drive nearly everyone in Stanville half mad. Her stories are random data that refuse to take any coherent form. She blames killing her own child, one of the transgressions most stigmatized in prison, on a mood disorder. But her need to tell those stories suggests that she’s compulsively trying to impose an order that just doesn’t fit—not, at least, in any way that the inmates of Stanville might understand it. In The Mars Room, the first thing an outsider wants to know about a prisoner—what she’s in for—is the thing prisoners themselves don’t talk about. The outsider believes in a model of causality, one in which personal responsibility is a relatively simple matter that the prisoners, Romy included, have long ago discarded.
What caused Romy, intelligent and literate, to end up in Stanville? What was the event that, had it not happened, would have left her free and raising her son, Jackson, one of the few people she genuinely cares about? In her mind, it’s not the killing of Kurt Kennedy, her stalker. As she sees it, that act was locked into place long before it happened. At various times, Romy thinks her fate was sealed by some small thing: when, for example, she took a job at the Mars Room, “the worst and most notorious” strip club in San Francisco. Or perhaps it was when she met Kennedy there. Or it was when the doorman at the Mars Room, in what he perversely considered a practical joke, passed Kennedy Romy’s new address after she’d moved all the way to Los Angeles to escape him.
Not all of the novel is told from Romy’s perspective. Some chapters come through the eyes of Gordon Hauser, a lonely Berkeley grad student–turned–prison GED instructor who befriends Romy and brings her books by Charles Bukowski and Denis Johnson, great chroniclers of the lowlife. (The inmates of Stanville are equally enthusiastic about a novel set in a women’s prison by Danielle Steele, so much so that they tear the paperback into sections so that more than one woman can read it at once.) Other chapters open up the perspectives of Romy’s cellie, Fernandez; of Doc, a former dirty cop now serving time for helping to arrange a hit on his girlfriend’s husband; even of Kennedy himself, Romy’s tormentor and victim. But Romy is the unifying sensibility of The Mars Room, and hers is a stoic outlook, except when bad news reaches her about her son. Romy’s preoccupation with the way chance events divert (or preordain?) the course of a life gives the novel a terse, fatalistic, noirish flavor. “I was assigned a public defender,” she remarks when describing her trial. “We were all hopeful things would go differently. They did not go differently. They went this way.”
Romy suspects that San Francisco, where she grew up, is cursed, that “there was evil coming out of the ground there.” The Mars Room is set in the mid-2000s, with the Iraq war rumbling in the background. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Romy was a teenager, she lived with her neglectful mother in the city’s Sunset District, where the Necco-wafer colors of the stucco houses fail to disperse the gloom brought on by the unrelenting fog and drizzle and the neighborhood’s sense of being an afterthought shoved to the margins. “I knew that for everyone else in the world the Golden Gate Bridge was considered something special,” Romy reports, “but to me and my friends it was nothing. We just wanted to get wasted.” Like Kushner’s actual group of friends in her Sunset District youth, they called themselves White Punks on Dope, after the old Tubes song.
Kushner’s previous novel, The Flamethrowers, had a swagger to it. Its narrator, Reno, sets a motorcycle speed record, hangs out in the Manhattan art world of the 1970s, and ends up in Italy, fraternizing with the Red Brigades. By contrast, The Mars Room is sorrowful and laconic. Nobody in it zooms anywhere, although a powerful undertow pulls the reader through the book. I didn’t consume it so much as it consumed me, bite by bite. Part of its traction comes from Kushner’s mastery of mood and place, which in this novel is less flashily intellectual, in the style of Don DeLillo, and more infused with yearning. Romy likes Gordon because he once lived in San Francisco, and with him she can handle her memories of the place like the beads on a rosary. It’s a lost world of dive bars, sandy streetcar tracks, a Tenderloin apartment with cheerful yellow Formica tables, people too unimportant to have been recorded anywhere: “A lot of history is not known. A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book.” She wonders what happened to a house she once visited in the Haight, where the rooms had been painted by tennis balls that had been dipped in different colors, then ricocheted off the walls. The trouble with San Francisco, she thinks, is that “I could never have a future in that city, only a past.” Now that she’ll never see it again, she devotes herself to remembering as much of it as she can.
The novel’s present takes place in the splendidly evoked Central Valley, described by Gordon as “a brutal, flat, machined landscape, with a strange lemonade light, thick with drifting topsoil and other pollutants from farm equipment and oil refineries.” He is nearly as cut off from the world as the women he teaches. His stalled dissertation was to be on Thoreau, and a friend back in Berkeley gave him a selection of readings by convicted Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (excerpts from which appear in the novel) as a going-away present. Just how similar are Thoreau and Kaczynski, beyond their fixation on living alone in one-room cabins in the woods? Both believed in what Thoreau conceived of as “a spiritual molting season, of a new man, the fateful concept of an American Adam.” And Gordon seems engaged in the same sort of project, learning to chop wood and not to jump at the screams of mountain lions in the night. But he’s also careful not to get too involved with any of the inmates. Unlike the rest of the characters, he’s just passing through, a proxy for the reader.
Back at the prison, life crawls by, punctuated by stupid disasters and pointless tragedies. But like green blades working up through broken pavement, human ingenuity learns how to circumvent the institution in small ways: to make cheesecake from nondairy creamer and Sprite and to transport carefully wrapped valuables though the toilets. In The Flamethrowers, Reno had a way of absorbing the voices speaking around her and passing them on to the reader, and so does Romy. Kushner has made several friends in the California prison system, and The Mars Room at its liveliest feels like a conduit for them and the people they know. One of the novel’s most lovable characters, a hulking trans man named Conan, describes being erroneously sent to a men’s prison, which he insists is much better than the women’s version: “I knew to let them make their mistake. You never correct, because their wrong might be your right. You wait, see how it’s going to play, see if you are getting some angle from their fuck-up.” Fernandez tells the story of how her ex once jacked a cement mixer but couldn’t figure out how to turn off the revolving drum, so they drove around town in it, deafened by the noise. All of this has the ramshackle ring of authenticity, the opposite of Laura Lipp’s vain attempts to force a conventional narrative on her chaotic, destructive existence.
Romy believes it makes no sense to talk “of life gone off the rails. What rails. The life is the rails. It is its own rails and it goes where it goes. It cuts its own path. My path took me here.” It’s left to Gordon to take a different, broader view. His time at Stanville shows him that for some people, self-determination is never on the table. What feels like fate or doom to Romy is, in his eyes, a straitjacket of circumstances. Take violence: “There are stark acts of it: beating a person to death. And then there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools.” Or the war.
This sounds tendentious, but there isn’t much direct lecturing in The Mars Room. Romy’s way of understanding her life makes for better, richer reading than Gordon’s sociology, but you can also detect, in his thoughts about this, Kushner’s speculation about what direction her own life might have taken if, like some of her old Sunset District friends, she’d been born to worse luck in family or class. Kushner doesn’t soft-pedal her character’s crimes, some of which are as cruel as the treatment handed out to them. She’s not a polemical novelist. But while the prison guards berate their charges that they have ended up in this hellhole as a result of their own choices, she summons the indelible image of lives from which all meaningful choices have been erased, one by one.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. Scribner.