Rachel Kushner is the author of three acclaimed novels : Telex from Cuba (about the Cuban Revolution), The Flamethrowers (about the 70s art world in New York), and more recently, the Booker-shortlisted The Mars Room, set in a women’s prison in California. Kushner says that after her works of historical fiction, she wanted to write a contemporary novel, to place a mirror on society and use what’s around to make a work of art. In person, she is slight and precise, and can speak with awe and authority on a wide range of subjects from motorcycles to the films of Antonioni. Her literary heroes are Proust, Duras and Bolaño, but in this book you sense the presence of Dostoevsky and Thoreau. Kushner is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Harold D Vursell Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.
A PRISON NOVEL THAT’S funny? That has the heft of Dostoevskian angst and shows its characters in all their imperfections and still manages to float into territories of lightness? Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is such a book. Bold, heartbreaking, and shot through with a kind of laughter in the dark.
“I’m so glad you think so,” she says, when we speak over the telephone. “This is the funniest book I’ve written by far. When I first had the idea to write this novel, I knew the challenge would be to crack open not just the life of the place, but the humour of the place, because the life and humour were going to have been the same thing. Not because I wanted to write a funny book, but because I thought if I didn’t locate the artfulness and life and ironies in the way that people interacted with one another, I wouldn’t be telling the truth.”
Incarceration has been on Kushner’s mind for a while. As a child, she wondered why people had to go to prison for life, what that meant—the abstractness of it. Growing up, she had a friend who went to prison and later died. She remembers this friend being arrested when they were teenagers, cuffed and face down with a cop’s boot on his neck. Even then, her friend was insulting the cop. “He was willing to suffer the consequences in order to have the last word and entertain his friends, and that has affected me deeply, my understanding of that type of personality, so it was essential to find a way to ventriloquise that kind of vivacity in the book.”
Romy Leslie Hall, Kushner’s protagonist is a 29-year-old single mother who was named after a German film actress. She worked at a strip club called The Mars Room, and when we meet her, she is about to begin two consecutive life sentences in the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility for killing her stalker. On her way to prison, she has been made to sit with another White woman on the bus, Laura Lipp, aka baby killer. ‘White women in prison have two crimes,’ Kushner writes, ‘baby killer or drunk driving. Of course they have many more crimes, but those are the stereotypes, which help to impose an order among the women, the races.’ Much of The Mars Room is written in this cool, sturdy prose, which breaks occasionally for laughter or a contained jolt of despair.
Kushner has had a lifelong interest in and discomfort with the carceral system in the US. It’s not just prisons she’s interested in, but the way life in California is structured and divided— how there is one layer of the population from which prison populations are drawn, how middle-class people can go about their lives and not see the net that’s been placed over the stage geographically and socially. “The story of California and where we are as a society is so inextricably related to the story of movement and people, and who breaks the law and who doesn’t, and who goes to court, and who goes to prisons, and who works in these prisons and where they’re located in the state.”
Issues of visibility and invisibility aren’t just Californian issues, though. They stretch across every state of the union. Kushner says that in America, middle-class people are broadly insulated from this invisible world of prisons. “They don’t want to think about it, and in a way, I don’t blame them, because it’s not nice at all. For me, it was this feeling of plunging into this world and knowing it would make indelible marks. In a way, I wasn’t concerned about myself, but I was aware that the things you learn to see will remain in your sidelines permanently because it’s like learning a language or being introduced to a logic structure. Once you have the structure, you can recognise the signs.”
Kushner felt naturally inclined to pursue the story of women in prisons as a woman herself, and because there’s a lot of focus on men in prisons already. Over 90 per cent of the prison system is male. “In a way, women get the worst of the whole system,” she says. “They’re the most forlorn and neglected population of prisoners. Partly because they get no support from the outside, but also for the way they’re treated. Virtually all of them have been victims of abuse.” More than a quarter of a million children in the US have a mother in jail. Many of these children will pass into the foster care system and will go to prison themselves. It’s a vicious cycle.
“When the thing happened with Trump, separating children [of migrants] at the border,” Kushner says, “everyone was outraged, and they should be. But I couldn’t help think of the operations as usual working structure of our legal system, by which women are separated from their children daily. No one has really protested that.” In The Mars Room, Kushner takes us into that murky area of criminal relativity, the scales of innocence versus guilt, but there is one area she believes to be above relativity: the durable innocence of a child. “The story of a child and what happens to that child renders that irrelevant. The child is not relatively guilty or innocent. The child is innocent.”
I would never attempt to push a particular moral philosophy on a reader. I pursued a line of inquiry
The cast of women in Stanville are a colourful and enterprising lot. There’s Button Sanchez, who gives birth while she’s being admitted, Betty LaFrance, a former pantyhose model, who makes hooch with juice boxes, ketchup packets, sugar and a sock stuffed with bread. Conan, a trans woman, who makes wooden dildos in carpentry. These women send burritos, Twinkies and cigarettes to each other through toilets wrapped in Kotex. They turn their lights out in protest and refuse dinner trays, which creates paper work for the staff. Their novelist of choice is Danielle Steel. Kushner believes people in prison are a cut above, in their ability to charm, threaten, manipulate and dazzle other people.
“It may be because they are stripped of so many aspects of how we present ourselves to others,” she says. “They’re stripped of identity and how you signal identity. What makes somebody admired or respected is gone. Everyone is wearing the same clothes. And they’re women. They don’t have access to things like makeup and how they do their hair and boyfriends and cars…. And they live with no privacy. In the California prison that I go to regularly, there are eight women in a room. So that’s four bunk beds lined up in a room with no personal space around your body. I think that’s why people’s personalities become the one currency they have. I mean there are other forms. If you’re a heroine dealer or something, then you have extra cache in prison,” she laughs. “But your personality is at a premium, and so people are great storytellers.”
Kushner, who has been moving between the outside world and prison world for some years, tells me that the differences between the worlds isn’t black and white. She feels an easy connection with the women she has met, and even when they have committed serious acts of crime, she can follow the logic that led to those particular actions. “Which isn’t to ever justify violence,” she says, “But I understand that…Talking to people in prison has never felt that far afield for me. I’d say the difference wasn’t based on my middle-class bourgeoisie life compared to the lives of my incarcerated friends who live on skid row. That’s a difference I can travel quite easily. The thing that took me a long time to understand was why the axis of innocence and guilt wasn’t going to explain much to me about the way my society is organised.”
There’s a character in the book, one of the few male characters, Gordon Hauser, who teaches literature in prison and brings Romy books like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Kushner says he’s not a proxy for her, but he does voice something she believes in, which is that all teenagers want a positive image and to be admired by their peers. “With the kids I grew up with, they weren’t going to get a positive self image from studying classical violin,” she says. “That wasn’t even an option, so you get it in different ways, and courage can be defined differently. And as a teenager, I’ll just say it, I had enormous admiration for the people around me who were largely free to destroy themselves, to get the respect of their peers.”
This notion, that circumstances lead to certain destinies. That free will is, in fact, a luxury, hums through the book. Kushner is a masterful novelist, and while The Mars Room lacks the pyrotechnic vitality of her earlier novel, The Flamethrowers, it simmers with definite anger and purpose. As a reader you question and rescale your belief systems several times, and this reader, at least, arrived at the conclusion that the US system is rigged to be unequal. “It may seem that you’re arriving at a place that the author may have designed, if with a light hand,” Kushner responds, “But I’d say that 80 per cent of the time, while working on this book, my state of mind could only be characterised by bewilderment, and bewilderment for me is a powerful modality because there’s no judgement there. For me, judgement is a wall, and understanding is on the other side of that wall.”
In the summer of 2015, while she was working on this novel, Kushner read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. She says it was the first time in her life she understood how morality and fiction could be related. Previously, her thoughts on moral fiction were bordering on snide, but she now believes the novel can be a moral occasion.
“As a reader of Dostoyevsky I felt awed by what he must have put himself through in order to write that novel. He was willing to entertain the entire spectrum of human capacities, for good and for evil, and to plunge his characters into the worst sort of crises in order to grasp, himself, what shades of meaning might be hidden behind the more obvious, and cruder, moral axes of so-called good and so-called evil.” Kushner asks us to consider the enormity of the life sentence, how we feel about people who commit violent crimes. “Moral complexity is, I believe, really painful for people,” she says. “They want people to be either guilty or innocent. But the moral axis by which people are divided by the carceral system isn’t sufficient for thinking about who people are, in terms of their character, and how those who are considered innocent and those who are considered guilty might both retain their full humanity and be understood instead of labelled. I thought about these things constantly for many years… Dostoevsky really helped me through this period of wrestling with moral issues, and I realised: Oh, this is moral fiction! But I would never attempt to push a particular moral philosophy on a reader. Instead, I pursued a line of inquiry.”
The Mars Room | Jonathan Cape | 352 pages | Rs 2,055
That year I’d had a chance to know a nice girl, with two parents, middle-class. She came to my house for a sleepover. The next week at school she told everyone that at my house we ate Hostess pies for dinner and threw the wrappers under the bed. I have no memory of that. I’m not saying it isn’t true. My mom let me eat what I wanted for dinner. She was usually with whatever guy she was seeing, someone who didn’t like children, so they’d be shut up in her bedroom with the door locked. We had an account at the corner market and I’d go down there and get goodies, chips, liters of soda, whatever I wanted. I didn’t know to pretend to live some other way to make an impression on another kid. It made me sad what this girl said about me and about our house. I was sad even as I stuck a pin in her ass as she got off the 6 Parnassus after school. Stood by the back doors, and as she exited I jabbed her, right through her pants.