With The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner cements her place as the most vital and interesting American novelist working today. A brutal, unforgiving, and often grimly funny tour de force of wasted lives, The Mars Room makes most other contemporary fiction seem timid and predictable; in doing so, it reminds us that fiction that startles and abrades is as necessary, or even more necessary, than fiction that comforts and assuages.
The anti-hero of Kushner’s novel is Romy Hall, a feral Californian lost girl who, as the novel begins, is on her way to a maximum-security women’s prison to serve a life sentence for murder. The Mars Room is thus, at least nominally, a prison novel. The term conjures a dull social-realist slog with a vaguely redemptive ending; suffice it to say that in this, as in many other ways, Kushner’s novel defeats easy preconceptions. Much of the book is told in flashbacks to Hall’s prior life as a dancer in a seedy Tenderloin strip club called the Mars Room. Hall’s life, inside and outside the Mars Room, is a jolting noir scramble of violence and inebriation; the prison scenes are executed without a single trace of prurience or false uplift, with the Foucauldian undertones of the scenario all there right on the surface.
It is difficult to be precise in analyzing the contours of this novel’s bleak emotional power without giving away the plot. That said, all narrative is in one sense or another movement, and The Mars Room is built upon three intersecting vectors. The first of these is the gradual unravelling of the crime that put Hall in prison, the central incident around which the entire novel rotates, and the exact nature of which is revealed in a cunning slow drip. As readers we want, at some level, even the most desperate of our protagonists to have some kind of moral center; one of the astonishing things about this book is that the reader’s understanding of Hall’s crime comes to seem, in some essential way, profoundly irrelevant. Prison life has a moral logic all its own, and immersion in its byzantine codes of behavior slowly occludes conventional conceptions of justice, of personal likability. By the time you get to the end of The Mars Room, your normative middle-class worldview has been knocked askew, perhaps permanently.
The second strand of narrative comes into play when we learn that Hall has left behind a now parentless seven-year-old son, whose fate she frets over. Hall and her fellow prisoners who happen to be parents are repeatedly denied even the nominal status of motherhood in absentia, as though poverty and violence were a perverse lifestyle choice made by women who somehow don’t love their small children. (“‘I used to feel sorry for you bitches,’” one guard says to Hall. “But if you want to be a parent, you don’t end up in prison. Plain and simple.’”) Kushner is not so maladroit or obvious as to make this any kind of political point; one of the many striking things about the book is how it instantiates a weird, glancing kind of sideways feminism, without ever shedding any of its bad-girl menace.
Hall’s wrenching yearning to know of her son’s fate runs in parallel to the entrance of the book’s secondary protagonist, a failed writer named Gordon Hauser, who teaches at the prison workshop as a form of self-imposed exile from academia, and from women “doing that grad-school thing of air-quoting to install distance between themselves and the words they chose, these bookish women with an awkwardness he used to find cute.” Instead, Hauser finds a different kind of attraction in Hall, and the relationship between the teacher and the prisoner, who each want something from the other, is suffused with a warped almost-poignance. The axes of their relationship—teacher and student, civilian and prisoner, suitor and desired, subject and object—map a structure of power relations that will not—that cannot—resolve in a satisfying way. In a sense, The Mars Room is all about broken or damaged or asymmetric power relations, between guards and prisoners, erotic dancers and clients, victims and stalkers, teachers and students, and the impossibility of transcending them.
This would all be unbearably grim if Kushner’s novel wasn’t also savagely funny. One of the death row inmates, for example, is a woman named Betty, “who had arranged her husband’s murder to get his life insurance,” a plan that went predictably awry:
The hit man who killed her husband was her lover, but while she was waiting for the money to come through, Betty worried he was turning on her, so she had her hit man killed by a dirty cop she met in a bar in Simi Valley. She was going to have the second hit man—the dirty cop who’d killed the first hit man—knocked off when they caught her. She didn’t want to share the life insurance policy with the cop, and she was afraid he’d squeal. They were in Las Vegas, partying on her life insurance money. Betty asked a security guard at the El Cortez casino if he would murder the cop for a payoff.
There’s no accounting for taste, I suppose, but if you, like me, find this wrackingly hilarious—the “bar in Simi Valley” is the touch that pushes it over the edge—you’re going to find a lot to like. And as it ticks towards a harrowing denouement, the book accumulates a perverse grandeur. A disembodied anonymous voice peeks through the cracks of the last third of the narrative, interspliced passages which turn out, as it happens, to be quotations from the journal of Ted Kaczynski, the notorious Unabomber. The implication, just barely traced, casts a sinister shadow over Hauser’s isolated lifestyle and eccentric intellectualism.
The Mars Room could only be set in California; its vivid sense of place is one of its strongest qualities. Squalor and violence are everywhere, of course, but nonetheless there’s something ineluctably West Coast about the whole thing—the book reeks of that combination of menace and sunniness that so often comes out of the Golden State, of that thin, wild line of mercury connecting the pioneers and the Donners and the 49ers to the land of Manson and satanic cults and serial killers. Viewed in this context, The Mars Room traces the secret shadow story, the long answer, to what happens in the grim aftermath of the old countercultural dream. Hall, who says “she hated San Francisco, that there was evil coming out of the ground there” could be the acid-wrecked toddler of Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” four blasted decades on.
This seemingly unforgiving nihilism, this absolute refusal to conform to the expectations of middlebrow narrative, is the central strength of Kushner’s novel. It takes a species of…well, artistic courage, let’s say, to look at the fallout of hard lives without romanticizing them, to refuse to soften a collective portrait of a cohort of luckless protagonists, and to craft a narrative that follows its own relentless logic unflinchingly to its end. In the shadow of The Mars Room, middlebrow literary fiction, with its urbane cosmopolitanism, its careers and affairs and families and houses, seems pale, stuffy drawing-room drama drained of vitality or force. The world of The Mars Room may be grim and hopeless, but it is shot through with an electric vitality and a harsh kind of beauty.