To write a great prison novel is a difficult task. After all, the prison seems a fundamentally anti-novelistic institution: rigid where the novel is elastic, ruthlessly managed where the novel is shaggy and truant. The novel is an art form of freedom, traditionally devoted to the expression of character, desire, and agency; the prison is a space, the space, of unfreedom, designed to keep character, desire, and agency under lock and key.
Rachel Kushner takes on the difficult task of writing about prison in her latest novel, The Mars Room. The book is mainly set in the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, a fictional prison in California’s Central Valley where, as one character puts it, the primary challenge is “having dignity in a cage. Having it hog-tied and Tasered. Being a person no matter what.” It’s hard to be a person, though, when you’re enmeshed in a system that doesn’t want you to be one.
On the novel’s first page, we meet a woman as she’s being transported from county lockup to Stanville: “I was woken at two a.m. and shackled and counted, Romy Leslie Hall, inmate W314159, and lined up with the others for an all-night ride up the valley.” From Romy to W314159, from a person to a prisoner, from an actor to the acted-upon: that’s the dehumanizing logic of prison, and that’s the logic that The Mars Room both lays bare and, through its impressive imaginative power, tries to resist.
As was the case in her previous novel The Flamethrowers, Kushner here roves between different narrators and different time periods. We spend time with Gordon Hauser, a failed English PhD who now teaches at Stanville, and with Doc, a dirty cop locked away for, among other crimes, taking part in a series of contract killings. But we spend the most time and gain the most intimacy with Romy Hall, a twenty-nine-year-old serving two consecutive life sentences plus six years for beating a male stalker to death.
Kushner moves between the narrative present, in which Romy is locked up in Stanville around 2003 (the Iraq War is underway, though the prisoners, isolated as they are, know little about it), and her earlier life in San Francisco, first as a childhood punk, then as a stripper at a club called the Mars Room. Throughout, Romy’s voice is restrained, intelligent, philosophically stoic. Here, for instance, is how she describes her trial: “I was assigned a public defender. We were all hopeful things would go differently. They did not go differently. They went this way.” We hope for things, but things go differently, and we can’t do much about it. That, Romy suggests, is all we know, and all we need to know.
Stanville reminds the individual of her powerlessness again and again. Prison is a negative space, defined by what can’t be done within its confines: no alcohol; no physical intimacy; no choice in reading material (“King James or International Version was the complete range”). In short, no freedom.
Indeed, the novel’s two-page third chapter consists entirely of a list of clothing prohibitions for visitors, covering everything from color (“No clothing in any shade of blue”) to footwear (“No shower sandals”) to brands (“No logos or prints”). The list is so exhaustive, the possibilities so minutely taxonimized and then banned, that one suspects that the rules exist primarily not to limit danger (“No bobby pins or metal clips in hair”) or to remove the possibility of titillation (“No half shirts or ‘low-waisted’ pants”; “No pants that are actually ‘long shorts’”) but to prevent visitors altogether, to ensure compliance through isolation. The scare-quotes in “low-waisted” and “long shorts” make it sound like the writer, probably someone in Stanville’s HR department, is impersonating human speech. Abandon all humanity, ye who enter here, the list might as well say.