Fiction in Review: The Mars Room

Abigail Deutsch

            The first line of dialogue in Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is a plea for silence. A pregnant fifteen-year-old convict, “her belly so large they had to get an extra length of chain to shackle her hands to her sides,” can’t stop weeping during a long trip on a prison transport bus. At this infraction, a fellow inmate orders, “Shut the hell up!”

            The incident inspires our narrator–a former stripper named Romy Hall, serving two life sentences for murder–to recall an early prison lesson of her own. Just after her arrest, she cried hysterically until her cellmate delivered a fittingly soundless message: “She turned around and lifted her jail shirt to show me her low back tattoo, her tramp stamp. It said: ‘Shut the Fuck Up.’”

            This double emphasis is no accident; the jailed women of Kushner’s novel are shut up in more ways than one. With the exception of one character, the pointedly named Laura Lipp, “no one has ever introduced themselves to me by full name,” Romy notes, “or attempted to give any believable-seeming account of who they are on a first introduction, and no one would, and I don’t, either.” Romy, whose imprisonment separated her from her young son, quiets herself internally, too, steering her thoughts away from the boy. Even as an employee at the titular strip club the Mars Room, she adopted a laconic strategy: “grinding was easier than talking.”

            But her most consequential silence came in court. Romy’s lawyer discouraged her from explaining her motives on the witness stand, and a judge ruled her victim’s behavior–a “sordid history” of stalking–inadmissible as evidence: “It did not establish an imminent threat on the night in question, and so the jury never learned a thing about it, not a single detail” that might have exonerated Romy.

            The Mars Room depicts that sordid history in full. For Kushner, everything is admissible–not just Romy’s state of mind but also her victim’s, and even the internal chatter of the girl whose tattoo instructed Romy to pipe down. The result is a fugue of a book whose various voices swell and fade, complementing and complicating Kushner’s themes. (This complexity recalls the interwoven narratives of The Flamethrowers, Kushner’s previous novel, which included tales of the New York City art world in the 1970s, an Italian motorcycle gang during World War I, and more.) The novel’s lack of straightforwardness—its tendency to toggle among perspectives and time periods—is exactly the point: the narrative winds and loops, confuses and complicates, because the truth is confusing and complicated, too.

            Similarly, the minds of Kushner’s characters tend to meander. And their freedom to think, to travel down fanciful mental byways, works in counterpoint to their confinement; that liberty (a silent one, naturally) is among the few they’ve hung onto. The very name Romy Hall, with its hints of both roaming outside and staying indoors, shut up, reinforces this duality. Even in prison, Romy manages to wander: she can imagine the view of the bay “like I was ghostwalking around the city. House by house, I looked at all there was to see, pressed my face to the breezeway gates of the Victorians along the eastern ridge of Buena Vista Park, the blue of the water softened by the faintest residue of fog.” Romy remembers the “clammy fingers of fog working their way into our clothes” and “the bad feeling of extra weight tugging me downward, from the mud caked on my jean hems.” Kushner’s elegiac passages about San Francisco are among the book’s most vivid, and their sharpness communicates how real the place remains to Romy, miles away in a Central Valley prison.

            Yet memories of the world can’t make up for loss of the world. That fact becomes painfully clear whenever Romy thinks about her son: “He needed me and there was nothing I could do. I lay in my tiny bare cell and tried to see Jackson, to visit with him.” Romy, who hasn’t seen her son in years, can only try to visit in her thoughts. And as well as she can recall San Francisco, she isn’t walking there–she’s “ghostwalking.” She knows she’s gone, stuck in another place.

            Romy’s is hardly the only distinctive voice in the novel; Kushner is a master ventriloquist. If Romy slips around a city in her head, Conan London–a transgender man and Romy’s cellmate–slides freely from fact to absurdity; he’s a jailhouse jokester, prone to observations such as this one: “The thing about cows is they’re dressed all in leather… . Head to toe, nothing but leather. It’s badass. I mean when you really think about it.”

            Then there’s the male convict Doc, a crooked cop, enthusiastic masturbator, and generally questionable character, whose obsession with sex rivals only his obsession with himself: “He once gave a hand job in [prison] and if you’re a not-gay man and you’ve never done it, whoa are you in for a surprise. Another man’s erect cock to a straight guy feels like a root vegetable. Women are used to it and every guy knows the feel of his own hard cock, but with your own, you don’t feel it, you make it feel. When Doc touched someone else’s member, somewhat like his own, but not his own, it sent him into biofeedback brain-scramble.”

            If the brain-scramble of The Mars Room–Kushner’s mix of minds–invites everyone to the witness stand, the characters’ testimonies indicate the shortcomings of concepts like “innocence” and “guilt,” notwithstanding the law’s reliance on them. After Romy learns that a car crash has killed her mother, her son’s sole guardian, she expresses desperation to see the boy, and a guard responds with telling ease. “Hall, if you’d wanted to be someone’s mother, you should have thought of that before… . If you want to be a parent, you don’t end up in prison. Plain and simple. Plain and simple.”

            Of course, nothing is plain or simple about Romy’s situation, nor any other inmate’s. The voluble Laura Lipp, who received a life sentence for killing her child, has bipolar disorder, which can lead to violence if improperly treated. As a kid, Doc–who killed multiple people, under variously horrific circumstances–was sexually abused by his stepfather. Even Romy’s stalker, once you get in his head, seems sick rather than evil. As Romy says, “Things are more complicated than some can admit. People are stupider and less demonic than some can admit.”

            Kushner isn’t seeking to exonerate her characters by detailing their biographies. Instead, she portrays the prisoners as neither innocent nor guilty, and also as both. Or, as she writes in one of her few on-the-nose moments, “Maybe guilt and innocence were not even a real axis. Things went wrong in people’s lives.”

            Things were certainly going wrong for Kurt Kennedy, a middle-aged San Franciscan disabled by a motorcycle accident. “He needed certain things to feel okay… . He needed Oxycontin because he had a pain problem. He needed liquor because he had a drinking problem. Money because he had a living problem, and show him someone who doesn’t need money. He needed this girl because he had a girl problem. Problem was maybe the wrong word. He had a focus.” But his “focus” on Romy, whom he meets at the Mars Room, constitutes an enormous problem of its own.

            Kurt follows her after work “to make sure she was getting home safe.” He appears at her local market, hoping to say hello. He goes through her trash to find her telephone number, and calls so often she disconnects her phone. Ultimately, spooked, she leaves her job at the Mars Room and flees to Los Angeles. But he discovers her new address, hops on his motorcycle, and–notwithstanding his severe knee injury–drives hundreds of miles to find her. When Romy discovers him sitting on her porch in Los Angeles, she sends her son into the house, lifts a crowbar, and beats Kurt to death.

            The incident sends her to prison for life. But Romy was already in a prison of Kurt’s making; he was watching her, tracking her, hunting her down. Another central character, Gordon Hauser, who teaches inmates GED prep, experiences an illuminating confusion early in the book. New to rural living, he hears the scream of a mountain lion but mistakes it for that of a woman in distress. Even before they’re put in cells, Kushner’s women–speechless and surveilled–have something in common with animals.

            And Gordon, a fairly benign character, bears a subtle and eerie similarity to Kurt. A dropout from Berkeley’s graduate program in literature, he takes a job at a prison–at first, not Romy’s–and there he, too, develops a “focus,” on one of the inmates.

            “Her brooding, childlike face and large dark eyes moved him,” Kushner writes. “That was what beauty was, he supposed, when someone’s face stirred feelings.” Gordon notes the pretty inmate’s whereabouts–chapel, library, and mail area, where he jealously wonders who might have sent her a package. Eventually, his days grow “structured by whether he might get a glimpse of this girl.”

            The feeling doesn’t seem mutual: when Gordon looks at the girl, she looks away, and once he notes “fear or what he thought was fear.” Then he makes a key discovery: the inmate is training to be a cosmetologist. Before long, he’s going to her for weekly haircuts–“pretty often,” as a yard captain drily notes. But Gordon’s reasoning is clear. “The touch of this girl’s comb produced a feeling that was both terrific longing and something like longing fulfilled.” The cosmetology salon is Gordon’s Mars Room.

            The relationship, such as it is, concludes turbulently. The woman comes on to Gordon behind closed doors. “Yes, he kissed her and not only. His hand grazed the front of her shirt and then it grazed lightly between her legs.” She proceeds to shock Gordon by filing a grievance against him, “for some complicated reason,” it turns out, “that had to do with the woman’s girlfriend, who was his student.” That accusation of groping is what sends him to his next facility, where he promptly develops a crush on Romy.

            Like Kurt, Gordon pays a woman for frequent physical contact. Like Kurt, he goes to questionable lengths to pursue a crush. The men’s most profound commonality, though, is an inability to acknowledge that the women possess interior lives beyond their admirers’ fantasies. Hence Gordon’s insensitivity to the inmate’s fear and averted eyes–and his terrible surprise when she traps and accuses him.

            Kurt commits the same critical error. Far more deluded than Gordon, he refuses to think of Romy as anyone but Vanessa–her stripper name–or to notice her discomfort when he follows her around San Francisco. He doesn’t bother to consider how she might feel if he pursues her to Los Angeles. And he fails to understand what might be about to happen when she lifts the crowbar. The judge isn’t the only character to overlook the significance of Romy’s experience, and Kushner, in spinning this narrative, isn’t compensating for his oversight alone.

            Yet Gordon, despite his missteps, is a sympathetic character, a seeker of social truths, even a Thoreau fan. Where, precisely, is the line that delineates abuse from decency, obsession from interest, Kurt from Gordon? In posing that unanswerable question, The Mars Room suggests how ill-equipped we are to determine who is breaking rules–to say nothing of what, precisely, the rules should be.

            It’s fitting that the novel toys with literary rules, too–and that Kushner has included the following epigraph: “I feel the air of another planet. / Friendly faces that were turned toward me / but now are fading into darkness.” The lines are a quotation from a poem used in Arnold Schoenberg’s second string quartet, a piece notorious for breaking rules, for flying free of traditional Western tonality. Kushner’s unconventionality in The Mars Room doesn’t always work: the weave of voices decenters the narrative, yielding an occasional sense of drift. And one daring touch, the inclusion of excerpts from the Unabomber’s diaries, adds little in the way of meaning. Still, in pushing its main character into the air of another planet–that of the American prison, with all its injustices–the novel provides a stirring study of the rules we live by, which fill the very air we breathe.

The Mars Room: A Novel, by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, 352 pp., $27)