Lost in the con­fines of a sys­tem of in­jus­tice

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Melinda Har­vey

Rachel Kush­ner marches to the beat of a dif­fer­ent drum than her Amer­i­can con­tem­po­raries. While they zag to­wards aut­ofic­tion, she re­mains com­mit­ted to ex­plor­ing oth­er­ness and con­texts. Her two pre­vi­ous nov­els ex­hib­ited an at­trac­tion to politi­cised mi­lieus be­yond lit­er­ary NYC and LA: for­eign coun­tries, ex­trem­ist ide­olo­gies, edgy peo­ple.

Telex from Cuba (2008) is set in the sugar plan­ta­tions and nickel mines of eastern Cuba dur­ing the Batista dic­ta­tor­ship of the 1950s; the pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of The Flamethrow­ers (2013) in­clude mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­ture and Italy’s Years of Lead.

The Flamethrow­ers sees land artist “Reno” on her Moto Valera ’77 roar­ing past a Grey­hound with its win­dows meshed and blacked and the words NE­VADA COR­REC­TIONS on its side. The start of The Mars Room takes us inside one such mo­bile prison. It’s head­ing from a Los An­ge­les County cor­rec­tional fa­cil­ity to Stanville women’s prison in the western Sierra foothills. Cuffed and chained on this bus is 29year-old strip­per Romy Hall, who has just re­ceived two con­sec­u­tive life sen­tences plus six years for mur­der.

The Mars Room is, largely, Romy’s story — from her early days hang­ing out in Sun­set Dis­trict with Eva, “one of those girls who al­ways had a lighter, bot­tle opener, graf­fiti mark­ers, flask, amyl ni­trate, Buck knife, even her own sen­sor re­mover”, to her time work­ing at the Mars Room — which, if a re­viewer on Goodreads can be be­lieved, is “not a mid­dling or me­diocre strip club but def­i­nitely the worst and most no­to­ri­ous, the very seed­i­est and most cir­cus-like place there is”.

The bulk of the novel, how­ever, is given over to Romy’s ex­pe­ri­ences in Stanville prison. Kush­ner is very good at de­tail­ing this highly cod­i­fied en­vi­ron­ment with its of­fi­cial and un­of­fi­cial rules and con­se­quent be­hav­iours. Guards are friend­zoned, run­ners are pro­cured, con­tra­band is smug­gled, sex­ual ap­petites are sat­is­fied alone or with oth­ers and bore­dom is rife. Bot­tom line: there’s no trust be­cause ev­ery­body has an an­gle.

Like The Flamethrow­ers be­fore it, The Mars Room shifts be­tween first and third-per­son nar­ra­tion.

The third-per­son sec­tions, tellingly, fo­cus on the novel’s rather un­pleas­ant male char­ac­ters: Romy’s client cum stalker Kurt Kennedy, ex-LAPD cop Doc and prison ed­u­ca­tor Gor­don Hauser. Gor­don, the least vile of the three, once started (but never fin­ished) a master’s the­sis on Henry David Thoreau.

When Gor­don moves to a one-room cabin up the moun­tain from Stanville to live out his en­thu­si­asm for Thoreau’s ideal of self-re­liance, his friend Alex sends him a Ted Kaczyn­ski reader as a joke. Chunks from the Un­abomber’s ac­tual di­ary punc­tu­ate the novel with­out fur­ther ex­pla­na­tion, though we are clearly be­ing prompted to con­sider free­dom — its mean­ing and who or what pre­vents the in­di­vid­ual from ob­tain­ing it — from a va­ri­ety of an­gles.

Kush­ner faces two chal­lenges to reader in­ter­est with this choice of ma­te­rial. The first is a chal­lenge re­lated to char­ac­ter: How to gen­er­ate sym­pa­thy for a vi­o­lent of­fender? The sec­ond is a chal­lenge re­lated to plot: Romy is serv­ing mul­ti­ple life sen­tences with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role; her jour­ney is over be­fore the novel even be­gins.

As her seat­mate Laura Lipp says on the bus to Stanville: “In prison you know what’s go­ing to hap­pen. I mean, you don’t ac­tu­ally know. It’s un­pre­dictable. But in a bor­ing way. It’s not like some­thing tragic and aw­ful can hap­pen, since that’s al­ready taken place.”

Kush­ner deals with these chal­lenges in pre­dictable and not-so­pre­dictable ways. The plot is given an in­jec­tion by a vul­ner­a­ble seven-year-old son in the world out­side as well as the ris­ing ten­sions among the inmates with the im­mi­nent ar­rival of trans woman Seren­ity Smith at the prison.

As far as char­ac­ter is con­cerned, Romy is soft­ened by a back­story: there is a dis­en­gaged mother and a vi­o­lent stranger “who looked like some­one’s fa­ther”.

Her no-non­sense hon­esty is also very like­able: “If you have never tried heroin I have news for you,” she con­fides to the reader early in the book. “It makes you feel good about your­self. It makes you feel good about other peo­ple. You want to give the whole world a break, a time­out, a ten­der re­gard.”

Shows like Or­ange is the New Black would have you be­lieve that in prison peo­ple be­come more, rather than less, who they re­ally are. But The Mars Room ar­gues the ex­act op­po­site. A great achieve­ment of the novel is the way it charts the dis­band­ing of per­son­al­ity by the ex­pe­ri­ences of in­car­cer­a­tion.

The “voicey­ness” of Romy’s rem­i­nis­cences of drug and risk-tak­ing in 1980s San Fran­cisco cedes to point-of-view nar­ra­tion that be­comes in­creas­ingly an­i­mal. Romy is re­duced to bare life and we are asked to note some sim­i­lar­ity be­tween her and the moun­tain lion that Gor­don hears shriek­ing on his first nights in the cabin. As she tells us early in the novel, “The era of me, the phase of me, re­ally, had ended.”

That the self is ex­tin­guished by prison means inmates are caught in a catch 22: the only hope they have of get­ting out of that place ne­ces­si­tates in­ner search­ing, which is no longer pos­si­ble.

This is one of sev­eral lines of ar­gu­ment Kush­ner pur­sues against the Amer­i­can jus­tice sys­tem in the novel.

She also ex­poses the dis­tor­tions to the truth that the ev­i­dence law up­holds and the bad faith in­volved in con­demn­ing a per­son to life in prison on the ba­sis of a sin­gle act. The Mars Room is, ul­ti­mately, a cri­tique of so­ci­ety’s habit of lock­ing up the suf­fer­ing for their suf­fer­ing and mak­ing “poor peo­ple with­out rea­son­able op­tions” their jail­ers.

is a lec­turer in lit­er­ary stud­ies at Monash Univer­sity and a judge of the Miles Franklin Lit­er­ary Award.

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