Romy Hall is a twenty-nine year old white woman from San Francisco, formerly a lap-dancer at the titular Mars Room, who’s been handed down two-and-a-bit life sentences; as the novel opens, she’s being transferred to California’s Stanville women’s prison, which is where she’s likely to stay until she dies. Although we don’t initially know the details of Romy’s crime, and one strand of the book is certainly concerned with the telling of that particular story, this isn’t a thriller or a suspense novel: it’s not so much about Romy’s future (will she get out?) as about the eternal present of those in her situation (this is where she is): Kushner’s telling us that this is the system of mass incarceration, and these are the people stuck inside it.
Don’t mistake The Mars Room for a didactic tract, though: while Kushner’s politics are both clear and convincing (the social welfare system is failing these people; the prison system is a disaster; race, gender and class discrimination is a horrendous problem at pretty much every level), as a novel it’s also vivid, funny and deeply moving. Romy’s fellow inmates are a varied bunch – there’s Conan, a trans man (the politics of the trans community in prison is brought into sharp focus in the latter half of the book); Button Sanchez, a teenager who gives birth as she’s entering Stanville; Betty LaFrance, a flamboyant killer on death row; and Sammy Fernandez, repeat offender and former prostitute – and we get a lot of detail about their individual histories alongside Romy’s memories of her past life and her continuing concern for her son, still on the outside. There’s also Gordon Hauser, the embittered grad-school dropout who’s teaching Stanville’s GED classes, and Doc, an dodgy cop implicated in Betty LaFrance’s crimes and locked up in a men’s prison elsewhere: Doc’s entirely repellent, and Gordon’s an unpleasant mix of naivety, misogyny, and an honest desire to help the prisoners. Men don’t come across very well here, but nor should they: the women in Stanville are told repeatedly that they’re there because of the ‘choices’ they’ve made, but their stories tell us otherwise – that the society they’ve grown up in has constantly undervalued and ill-treated them, giving them no real choices and no real chances. Gordon’s relative privilege as an educated white male lifts him out of the danger zone; Doc – the murdering policeman – is the true face of power.
Most reviews of The Mars Room are headlining with Orange is the New Black comparisons, and while Romy (single parent, working class, one-time junkie) bears little superficial resemblance to Piper (Smith graduate and artisanal soap connoisseur), it’s nonetheless a reasonable comparison: both the novel and the show (mea culpa: I haven’t read the OITNB book) are scathing indictments not only of the US prison system, but of the social welfare system that’s failing the population condemned to live within those prisons. This isn’t a book you’d read primarily for the plot, but for the detail, and while I’ve seen some other reviews that come down hard on Kushner’s exhaustive itemizing of the minutiae of prison life as an example of research weighing too heavy upon the text, I think they’re missing the point: there’s no movement, no development, when you’re in jail for life, so a novel about incarceration has to occupy the same moment again and again. The standards of time and structure and plot can’t apply if you’re never going anywhere; form’s got to fit function, right? Kushner’s triumph lies in how she weaves in a multitude of stories into an overall structure that’s more or less static, and yet doesn’t produce a book that feels stagnant: it’s a very compelling read. It’s hard not to read such criticisms as gendered too: a woman writer writing about a woman’s prison filled with women, attacked (by male critics) for eschewing Capital-P-Plot. Hmm.
Any Cop?: Anyone who’s interested in social critique ought to be very impressed, but general readers will be too: her characterisation is brilliant, and her portrait of Romy’s San Francisco is a nice counterpoint to the high-tech Californian Dream we’re used to reading about. It’s hilarious and depressing and rage-inducing in equal measures.