In 1974, President Nixon performed at the Grand Ole Opry. First, he praised the audience’s values which, he boasted, were America’s values. According to the much-investigated Richard M., country was a musical representation of America’s soul. Next, he banged-out a clumsy piano rendition of “God Bless America.” Immediately following Nixon’s performative version of the United States, the Grand Ole stage came to life with act after act, a long line of country and redneck musicians, one after another singing of revenge, drugs, affairs, divorce, booze, despair, poverty, rootlessness, ruthless bosses, and prison. The Opry crew indeed sang out America’s soul, not the pasty goo of Conservative false memory. Recounted by Doc, a murderous and crooked cop serving a life sentence, this anecdote represents the soul of Rachel Kushner’s third novel, The Mars Room, which is fixed on national fragmentation and uses incarceration as object model. In a sense, Kushner installs a novelistic split screen of the country, saccharine on the right and the lime-squeeze with a tequila shot on the left. It’s a tableau vivant wherein tragedies are driven by America’s ain’t-we-grand moral rectitude, its willful blindness to issues of race, class, and gender acted out day after day in more than few lives. Those three classifications – r/c/g – get a lot of of airtime – I know – but that’s because they are always valid. By the way, Doc, the bent homicidal detective doing life, informs us that “Nixon’s face turned to cold plastic” as those songs of sex, drugs, and more drugs were performed to cheering Opry-Americans. Deal with it, sucker.
So. Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics presented philosophic investigations of the nature of good in ancient times. The Mars Room presents a fictional investigation of the types of cruelty resulting from modern times’ willful blindness to social conditions and bureaucratic shambles. Kushner’s previous novels are Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers, both National Book Award finalists, both terrific. The fieldwork behind The Mars Room is impressive – Kushner spent solid time researching prison life on site – but also a burden. Accuracy makes for a trustworthy read but does not guaranty a magnetizing, can’t-put-down one.
But to the story. Which tracks Romy Hall, a 29-year-old white woman sentenced to serve two consecutive life sentences plus six years. She murdered the shitheel who had been stalking her. Romy’s biography checks off the boxes to demonstrate how she was screwed by the system from birth to the last page. She grew up poor in San Francisco’s Sunset District, “fog-banked, treeless and bleak, with endless unvaried houses built on sand dunes that stretched forty-eight blocks to the beach.” Her mother was an addict. Lost in the city, late one night, an eleven-year-old, Romy was raped. From an early age, she used drugs. The efficacy of her intelligence and adeptness when she attended school was slim. By age eighteen she was working as a lap dancer at sleazy clubs, The Mars Room being one of them. Describing the club and her sisters-in-stripping, Romy recounts, “If you’d showered you had a competitive edge at The Mars Room. If your tattoos weren’t misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night.” When Kushner’s good, she’s awesome.
At that same club, Romy chances on the obsessive Kurt Kennedy. One more “K” and we’d have him down cold. Kennedy, Romy’s stalker, is destruction-waiting-to-happen. He tracks her from apartment to apartment, phone number to phone number, San Francisco to Los Angeles. Club bouncers know him as a good customer and won’t bar him, despite Romy’s pleas. When Romy kills KK, it is in self-defense and to protect her little boy, six-year-old Jackson. At trial, the evidence for justifiable homicide is ruled inadmissible for the usual nonreasons of the justice system. Romy is shipped to Stanville Correctional Facility in California’s Central Valley. There’s where we meet her, handcuffed and chained on the overnight bus. Along the way, one prisoner has a medical emergency which is ignored; that woman is dead by the time the bus arrives. Another, Conan, who has been jailed in a men’s prison by mistake, sort of, is locked in a cage throughout the twenty-three-hour drive. A pregnant prisoner gives birth shortly after arrival. After a wickedly brutal delivery, the infant is permanently wrested from its mother. That scene was especially hard to read.
Romy is stuck, suckered, desperate. Jackson is handed over to Romy’s one relative, which is fine, given the circumstances. But then the relative dies and Romy is desperate to locate Jackson, difficult since she lost all parental rights and her resources are nil. This albeit tragic thread, trying to find Jackson, is the only part of the novel offering enough tension to propel a reader to finish the book. Kushner has us aching for Romy and also terrified about what could happen. It’s believable, too; most everything is in the novel, although who am I, how am I, to really know? Based on my reading of Dostoyevsky’s The Dead, Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, or The Autobiography of Malcolm X? Because I’ve watched Birdman of Alcatraz, Oz, and Orange Is the New Black? Just saying. Grain-of-salt me.
Acclimating to her cell, built for four, shared by six, Romy is first greeted by Teardrop, who takes one look at her and shouts, ‘“Nuh-uh…No hillbilly bitches in this room. Get the fuck out.”’ Conan, no longer caged and the kindest character in this novel, intervenes. “She’s cool. I cosign her.” Teardrop shifts into reminiscing about a previous decade. She offers a tainted gumdrop of nostalgia worthy of Mitch McConnell. “It was a carefree time. There weren’t problems like now. You know what people were worried about? Static cling. That was the big fear on TV and in people’s hearts. Static cling.” No, Teardrop, it wasn’t. The Cold War, the hot wars, fears of plague, famine, nuclear attack – like the poor, they were and are always with us. Teardrop is messed up enough to know nothing. Romy is intelligent, observant, and oddly evolved. She sees what a suck her life is, understands the psychology of drugs, the sociology of poverty. She’s enough of a cynic to be hardened but not enough to be destroyed. But life is unrelentingly bleak. Much space is devoted to showing Romy’s day-to-day, at her prison job, in the yard, interacting with inmates or the prison teacher. The novel is part inadvertent journal, a chronicle of the previously mentioned line-up of the Major Archana of life events – rape, murders, poverty, confinement. Alas, I can’t praise or recommend it as enthusiastically as I do the books I mentioned above
Read the novel; prove me wrong. Tell me if I am silly to be disappointed by Gordon, a Berkeley grad school dropout who moves from an apartment in the Bay Area to a cabin near Stanville. He’s a prison GED instructor with a soft spot for his lady students. Gordon learns to reign in his attractions, although he is suckered by his wily charges to smuggle in yarn and books. His plot line seems like it might become expansive, that there will be a decisive or plot-twisty interaction with a prisoner or guard. There’s not. He receives emails from his pal who didn’t drop out of grad school; the emails are about two cabin dwellers of note – Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski. Which is, may I say, an unfair pairing. I know Kaczynski read Thoreau, but so what. And, yes, Thoreau was not the perfect wilderness man but his writing is sublime, and he was an Abolitionist. Kaczynski may have written coherent sentences but he was no stylist. I agree with his call for simplicity, but he was a murderer whose mail bombs terrorized. Quit trying to make bookends of those two people, people. Gordon’s participation in the novel reads as a closely observed document of a human desire to self-improve; how we are both hard on ourselves and easy.
A man could say every day that he wanted to change his life, was going to change it, and every day the lament became merely a part of the life he was living, so that the desire for change was in fact a stasis that allowed the unchanged life to continue, because at least the man knew to disapprove of it, which assured him all was not lost.
Gordon is a hollow actor here, but he is the only one in the story who heads off to become involved with a compassionate sector of the middle class. Boring though I found him, I cheer that he has the gumption, or awareness of self, to change his life, and for the better. Male and white, he is born to opportunity; screws up; regroups and makes use of his birthright. It’s highly annoying that he gets a Hollywood ending, B-movie though it might be, and no other character does.
When I was six-years-old I told some neighbor kids that there was no Santa Claus. Having a gaggle of older sisters I knew a thing or two. What I know at this stage of my life is not to spill the beans. There is some action toward the end of the story. I also know this: There are moments when each of us is unguarded enough to allow awareness of the realities of life – for refugees, children-at-risk, the hungry, the homeless – to sink into our well-defended consciousness and ride a chute to the suffering area. Those painful moments leave us at least briefly aware. That’s something. The Mars Room does its best to serve as one of those moments.