Joan Didion, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers – and now Rachel Kushner, author of a powerful new US novel

Louisa Kasza reviews Rachel Kushner’s novel The Mars Room, which is hailed in this week’s New Yorker – alongside the US edition of Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young – as one of America’s best new books.

A cool, Joan Didion-esque breeze of seeming indifference blows through the writing of US novelist Rachel Kushner. The Mars Room, her third novel, is named after a San Francisco stripclub where her character Romy Hall works. She’s a former junkie who lives mainly for her young son and ludicrously named pseudo-tough-guy boyfriend, Jimmy Darling. Romy tries to sidle through life unnoticed, not getting into too much trouble. However, even so small a demand can be too much to ask, and a client becomes obsessed with her. He stalks her; she flees San Francisco; he follows her; she kills him.

Romy is arrested and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. She must now say goodbye to freedom, if you could call a life so constrained by circumstance freedom.

On the overnight bus transporting prisoners to prison, Romy experiences existential dread and registers a bad omen: “Somewhere deep in the Central Valley, the sky still dark, I looked out the window and saw two massive black shadows looming up ahead. They looked like dark oily geysers fluming upward on the side of the highway. What terrible thing was spewing into the sky like that, filling it with soot? They were huge black clouds of smoke or poison. . . . Maybe this was some kind of environmental disaster, crude oil that had burst its underground pipe, or something too sinister for explanations, a fire burning black instead of orange. As our sheriff’s department bus approached the giant black geysers, I got a close-up glimpse. They were the silhouettes of eucalyptus trees in the dark. Not an emergency. Not the apocalypse. Just trees.”

But of course it is an apocalypse, felt at a personal level – for Romy, and for the thousands of people incarcerated across the country. Romy’s story illuminates the plight of George W Bush-era America’s downwardly mobile working class, as Kushner hones in on the details Romy observes from her new position as a ward of the state.

Superficially, Romy adapts well to life in Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, having swapped one caged existence for another. Her experience in navigating tough characters stands her in good stead, and her dissociated air allows her to drift through the banal routine of prison life. However, she rubs prison staff the wrong way and soon ends up in in solitary confinement. There, boredom drives Romy to chat with her cellmate, Sammy Fernandez, and with Betty LaFrance, a black widow and former leg model on death row who can be communicated with by yelling through the toilet drain.

Didion, O’Connor, McCullers, Kushner. They love a black and white author shot

Both Sammy and Betty convey to her an important fact: that the powerless gain power by having an eye for the main chance and a nose for a willing victim. This is where Gordon Hauser bumbles in. Gordon, a failed academic and a prisoner of a less literal kind, educates women towards their high school qualifications at Stanville. He misinterprets his own need to be liked for a drive to help others and is soon performing small, seemingly insignificant favours for some of the more persuasive or needy prisoners. He orders novels from Amazon directly to Romy to encourage the potential he sees in her. He also, secretly, hopes to ingratiate himself with her further. For Romy’s part, her only concern is to be reunited with her son, now lost somewhere in the foster system, and Gordon can’t help her with that. Or can he?

The Mars Room quietly dissects and subverts every facet of the American dream. Prison is a money-making behemoth that profits from indentured labour, yet for some of its inhabitants it offers more safety and opportunity inside its walls than they can find outside.

The book occasionally bites off more than it can chew. It features an ensemble of characters, and some are barely sketched in yet given to long and eloquent monologues. Others, such as Betty LaFrance’s paramour, dirty cop “Doc” Richards, have whole chapters dedicated to their point of view, but they can read like aimless detours from the main highway of Romy’s story.

Yet even with these loose threads dangling, The Mars Room is more than the sum of its parts. Humanity shines through, and despite its political themes of imprisonment and the death of the American dream of social mobility, the tone of The Mars Room is always understated, never strident. In this quietly ambitious book, Rachel Kushner upholds the tradition of an alternative American canon of female writers – Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and the rest – who honour life’s messy margins.


The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Jonathan Cape, $37) is available from Unity Books.

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