An unflinching portrayal of the US prison system makes for a frustrating readby Sian Norris / July 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
The latest novel by Rachel Kushner, who was nominated for the National Book award for 2013’s The Flamethrowers, is an addictive read that explores the grim reality of America’s prison system. Told mostly through the eyes of inmate Romy Hall, Kushner exposes the dark underbelly of the American dream.
The novel opens with Romy’s journey to Stanville, a women’s prison where she is to serve two life sentences for murdering a man who was stalking her. Romy takes us back to her childhood in the forgotten corners of San Francisco, and her work as a stripper in a seedy club called The Mars Room. It’s a world of drink and drugs, violence and death, male entitlement and female cynicism.
Kushner weaves in the stories of Romy’s fellow inmates. Through their diverse histories, she explores how class, race and gender discrimination, combined with a profiteering prison system, add up to a form of violence as real as the crimes committed by the women.
At points, Kushner shifts the narrative’s focus on three male figures: the prison teacher Gordon Hauser; the psychopathic rapist killer “Doc,” who is in prison for killing his lover’s husband, and the creepy stalker Kurt Kennedy, whom Romy kills. These excursions give the author a chance to contrast Romy’s imprisonment with Gordon’s self-imposed isolation. Through Doc, we understand the different experiences of male and female prisoners. The Kennedy chapters allow the reader to explore issues of harassment.
However, along with the zigzagging between the female inmates’ stories and Romy’s past, the end result is a novel that often feels like a series of polemical vignettes rather than a cohesive narrative. And some of the Doc chapters are so graphic they became very difficult to read. The Mars Room doesn’t shy away from the US prison system’s brutality, and offers an unflinching exposure of its treatment of women, while sometimes being a frustrating read.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Simon & Schuster, £16.99)