The Harsh Beauty of Rachel Kushner’s ‘The Mars Room’

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. [millions_ad] 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.

The Miseducation of Henry Adams

My parents are retired academics, and the library of their small, cozy house, which is tucked away on a country hillside in Pennsylvania, is thick with the residua of a half century in the humanities. Among the many books nestled in these overcrowded shelves are a number of Modern Library hardcovers, some with their torn Art Deco paper jackets still clinging to them, some stripped to their gilt-lettered cloth binding, among them, or so I thought, an edition of Henry Adams’s celebrated posthumous autobiography—one of the founding documents of American literature. I was back at my parents’ over the holiday, but when I looked for the book, it was mysteriously gone. The seed, however—as is so often the case with me, being one of visual association with a specific physical object—had been planted. So last month, confronted with the rare, welcome, and unexpected boon of a break in my assigned-reviewing book reading duties, I dutifully made my way to the mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library—that most functional and least aesthetically pleasing of all New York City institutions—checked out the Houghton paperback edition with the foreword by Donald Hall, and dove into it that same night. The Education of Henry Adams is an extraordinary book, maddening, alternately fascinating and tedious, just as often mordantly and unexpectedly funny, one that seems both ragingly pertinent to and impossibly distant from our own time. Written in a stream of perfectly balanced and musical prose, it is at times opaque; coming from a perspective of unimaginable privilege and prestige, it is dominated by themes of failure, exclusion, otherness, superannuation. Most of all, it provokes turbulent half-formed thoughts on history, politics, identity, privilege, and the meaning of the act of reading. Adams’s book works against its readers’ expectations in a curious way. The book is saturated, from its title down, with a sense of ironic detachment and self-deprecation. The running joke of the book, of sorts, is that Adams continually fails at everything he turns his hand to: he speaks repeatedly of not being able to understand, of being left out of the conversation, of being excluded, of failing, of not being equal to the task at hand. The title is deeply ironic: the book could just as easily be called (pace Lauryn Hill) The Miseducation of Henry Adams, as his attempts to be prepared for the world at large are constantly failing him and leaving him bereft of purpose and capability. There is something amusingly hangdog about his affect—he’s like a 19th-century Kylo Ren, living with petulant ineffectuality in the long shadows of his forbears. And it is hard to locate the book within contemporary attitudes towards privilege and entitlement. Adams feels very dead, very white, and very male; it is difficult to imagine an author who is more favored with wealth and status, who is more certifiably a member of the Anglo-Saxon patriarchy, whose story less well-suited to our current and deeply justified hunger for diversity and alterity in the narratives we choose to invest ourselves in. What relevance could this book possibly hold? But Adams’s blunt awareness of the circumstances of his birth is disarming: Probably no child, born in the year, held better cards than he. Whether life was an honest game of chance, or whether the cards were marked and forced, he could not refuse to play his excellent hand. He could never make the usual plea of irresponsibility. He accepted the situation as though he had been a party to it, and under the same circumstances would do it again, the more readily for knowing the exact values. To his life as a whole he was a consenting, contracting party and partner from the moment he was born to the moment he died. Only with that understanding—as a consciously assenting member in full partnership with the society of his age—had his education an interest to himself or to others. He has struck a bargain with himself and with the readers: In exchange for the privilege he has born into, he agrees to look with an honest eye at the forces that made him so and how he fits into the narrative of American consciousness. He will place, as his first biographer Ernest Samuels put it, “the sustained intermingling of philosophy and personal experience in the service of a historical thesis.” Adams’s “education leads ineluctably to the conviction of his own ignorance, and his ignorance must educate us,” Donald Hall writes in his foreword. “We read Adams to remind us of our ignorance.” To use a shopworn metaphor, Adams is the man who fully understands that he was born standing on third base; “we started out ahead of everybody,” he wrote in his journals, of his cohort. It would be easy enough to see this as a form of self-absorption, of rationalization, but to me it sounds oddly heroic. And so off he goes, through his youth in Massachusetts and his education at Harvard and then to the first great political experience of his life, that of being secretary to his father, the ambassador to England, during the Civil War. Adams’s account of long-forgotten details of England’s semi-neutrality in the conflict, of diplomatic infighting and deceit and maneuvering, can be slow going, but is also remarkably evocative of how treacherous the byways of transcontinental politics were—a role for which he was forever ill-suited. Returning to the United States, he finds himself sidelined by the avaricious vulgarity of Ulysses S. Grant’s administration; Edward Halsey Foster pictures a “man of immense reserve and intelligence, living across from the White House and studying its occupants with little confidence in their abilities.” He reluctantly takes up a professorship at Harvard—“education, like politics, is a rough affair,” he observes—before going west with the legendary geologist and surveyor Clarence King. The end of Chapter Twenty finds Adams in a mountainside camp with King, where he concludes that “no more education was possible for either man.” So, it is startling for a contemporary reader, or maybe even any reader, to turn the page and that find Chapter Twenty-One is titled “Twenty Years After,” and dated 1892. It begins with this stirring refrain: Once more! this is the story of education, not of adventure! It is meant to help young menor such as have intelligence enough to seek help—but it is not meant to amuse them. What one did—or did not do—with one’s education, after getting it, need trouble the inquirer in no way; it is a personal matter only which would confuse him. This extraordinary sentence, with its mixture of bravado, condescension, generosity, and evasiveness, marks one of the most drastic elisions in the history of American narrative, and one that can only be understood, of course, in context. What readers of Adams’s time and just after would have known was that the missing 20 years comprised the happiest of his life, those in which he met, courted, and married Marian “Clover” Hooper, with whom he lived a prosperous and highly social life in Washington, all of which ended abruptly with his wife’s unexpected suicide in 1885. Hall avers that Adams’s reticence “is clearly the product not of coldness but intolerable heat;” Foster makes the cryptic and highly unscholarly observation that “some have speculated that Adams's distant, ironic nature contributed to his wife's suicide, but there is no direct evidence of this.” Whatever the truth, it takes a special kind of man to write a 500-page autobiography without mentioning the suicide of his wife, and here again we find ourselves looking at Adams as from a great distance. Having elided the central tragedy of his life from his history, he continues his account of his peregrinations across the United States and Europe, including three visits to World’s Fairs, those of 1893, 1900, and 1904, as well as to a series of European cathedrals, especially the one dedicated to the Virgin Mary, at Chartres, in France. Adams’s lifelong freedom from conventional social and financial obligations was socially isolating but also intellectually liberating. Adams was essentially an autodidact, and one detects in the patterns of his thinking both the autodidact’s characteristic strengths—catholicity of interest, a tendency toward synthesis—as well as weaknesses, the primary one being an idiosyncrasy that borders at times on cranky. (He reminds me at times of those super-intelligent loners who read, if such a thing were possible, too much, and who, ungrounded by intellectual contact with peers of any kind, spin off into elaborate conspiracy theories.) In Adams’s case, he developed a conception of himself as a “conservative Christian anarchist”—whatever that means—and cooked up weird, quasi-feminist, slightly icky theories about gender and sex. He vouched that he “owed more to the American woman than to all the American men he ever heard of” and he “caught the trick of affirming that the woman was the superior,” although it turns out that woman “was the goddess because of her force; she was the animated dynamo; she was reproduction—the greatest and most mysterious of all energies.” His adoration of feminine iconography in early Christianity was somehow yoked to his idea that Christianity had ended. The result, in his formulation, was “an emptying of history,” as his biographer Edward Chalfant put it, “an emptiness so vast could be crushing. Having no one to turn to, he feared he might lapse into a senseless admiration of Jesus—senseless because belated.” His travels allowed him to pursue a growing fascination with both technology and with the history of religion, which gradually blossomed into a series of chapters about history and science. The most famous of these are “The Dynamo and the Virgin” and “A Dynamic Theory of History,” which form the basis of the book’s reputation as a foundational document in the philosophy of history. For me the central brilliance of these two knotty excursae lies less in the particulars of their propositions and more in the brilliance and ambition of their scope. Adams understood better than any of his peers—and remarkably well for a man aged 72, not an age commonly associated with flexible receptiveness to unfamiliar technologies—that this new technology transformed not just work, and society, but thought. “The dynamo,” as the scholar Jennifer Lieberman puts it in an entrancing new book, “inspires Adams to write history in new ways. Its ‘force’ challenges him to think beyond his own parochial perspective—to reimagine history not as a series of human accomplishments, but as a larger drama involving systemically interconnected energies.” (Lieberman also makes the delightful observation that Adams’s hunger for the gloss of the new wears off quickly, just as it might for any 13-year-old with a new smartphone.) In The Education, as Samuels observed, “reality shimmers through a haze of symbols and analogies, and imagination makes all history a simultaneous emotion.” As Adams broadens his thesis, he also casts his eye backwards, and he begins to feel himself dissolving into the past, into disembodied experience. He begins to wish for the negation of learning; “he saw his education as complete, and was sorry he had ever begun,” and expresses doubt about the fundamental communicability of the liberal project, noting that “words are slippery and thought is viscous.” He limns a profound understanding of the futility of assuming that progress is cumulative. “The attempt of the American of 1800 to educate the American of 1900” had not often been surpassed for folly; and since 1800 the forces and their complications had increased a thousand times or more. The attempt of the American of 1900 to educate the American of 2000, must be even blinder than that of the Congressman of 1800, except so far as he had learned his ignorance. Adams’s conclusion, as John C. Orr puts it, emphasizes that “the mental paradigms one inherited [will always] lag behind technological and scientific developments;” in a world where the acceleration of knowledge and technology increases exponentially, the inner truth of education lies in recognizing its limits. We must know above all what it is that we do not know. This conception strikes me as fundamentally humble, not just towards one’s peers or superiors, but towards the unknown future generations. So many current leaders, thinkers, and writers are absolutely sure of their own values and achievements; so many of them are absolutely certain of the superiority of their moral vision to that of their predecessors, and of the utility of their perceptions to posterity. Adams was relentless in his denial of this (after all) very human urge; he looks back on his own preconceptions of youth and concludes that anything he would try to say to future generations would be worse than useless. Underneath all of his elegant melancholy is an asperity that is unsparing of himself, that is ruthless towards sentimentality, cant, moral certitude, all of the pious superiorities that so often accompanied the 19th-century idea of progress. It’s a little frightening; the intensity of Adams’s world-historical skepticism approaches nihilism. This, I think, more than its somewhat convoluted theories or its value as a historical document, is the heart of The Education’s continued appeal. Its emotional valence is remarkably bracing to anyone who finds himself out of tune with the received notions of a culture. This strange and beautiful journey of a book grows darker as its author gives way to the encroaching gloom of superannuation, almost to the violence of despair. He was deeply unmoored by the loss of the Titanic, on which he was scheduled to sail on its return voyage to London; Susan Hanssen writes that the “catastrophe seemed almost too neatly to demonstrate the truth of his warning against modern man’s belief that he could master and manipulate nature to create the kingdom of heaven on earth.” His mindset can be inferred from a wonderful letter that Henry James wrote to him in 1914, wherein the great novelist wrote that “I still find...consciousness interesting” and implored his friend, “cultivate it with me, dear Henry—that’s what I hope to make you do; to cultivate yours for all that it has in common with mine.” (It can’t be a good sign when Henry James is telling you to cheer up.) As it comes to a close, The Education strikes a note of discordance and entropy, with a dizzying view of a New York City descending into high-velocity chaos and madness: The cylinder had exploded, and thrown great masses of stone and steam against the sky. The city had the air and movement of hysteria, and the citizens were crying, in every accent of anger and alarm, that the new forces must at any cost be brought under control. Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid. That this vision feels so accurate does not mean that the world we inhabit is the same as Adams’s—much that he held dear now seems retrograde and exclusionary, and much of what he disdained has been rendered triumphant. But reading this despairing, sardonic, sometimes difficult book allows to see both things, what we have gained and what we have lost; it shows us how to attend to the details of our own educational journeys, whatever they may be.