The mammoth and cruel American prison system poses a special challenge for writers. More than two million people are incarcerated in the United States. Millions more enter and exit the prison system on a regular basis. What actually happens there?
The conventional means of conveying information go dark. Journalists are rarely allowed access. Prisoners can’t use the Internet; their mail is often censored or lost. Writing classes in prison are common, but the works produced there rarely reach readers. Visitors—lawyers and family—usually only make it to a meeting room. New York is home to the world’s largest penal colony, Rikers Island, where ten thousand people are held on any given day in large, airless dormitories, often simply because they couldn’t afford bail for crimes they haven’t committed. Yet Rikers wasn’t on most New York subway maps until 2010; even now it’s not uncommon to see it unlabeled, a beige drop in the East River, present but unknown.
“If they could have shot us to the prison in a capsule they would have,” thinks Romy Hall at the beginning of The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner’s third novel. “Anything to shield the regular people from having to look at us, a crew of cuffed and chained women on a sheriff’s department bus.” It’s chain night, meaning that the inmates are being moved under cover of the California darkness to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. There, Hall will be serving two consecutive life sentences for killing a man who stalked her at the Mars Room, the nightclub in San Francisco where she worked. It is at Stanville that Kushner’s expert, often remarkable, and sometimes frustrating novel takes place.
Kushner’s choice of subject suits her considerable skills. She has the rare ability to quickly set up scenes that seem utterly convincing down to the last detail. In Telex from Cuba (2008), her first novel, she described with precision and confidence the lives of white Americans in Cuba on the eve of the revolution, blending stories from her own family with those of characters who saw the rise of Castro. The Flamethrowers (2013) depicted the art world of the 1970s, full of eccentricities and radicalisms:
There was a man in my neighborhood who carried a long pole over his shoulder, painted with barber stripes. I would see him at dusk as I sat in the little park on the corner of Mulberry and Spring…. The man sat there with his striped pole jutting over his shoulder like an outrigger, one leg crossed over the other, his sun-browned toes exposed in battered leather sandals. He smiled foolishly when the Italian kids asked what his pole was for.
Kushner’s novels are the product of enormous research, but she rarely shows her work; history and creation knot together like threads in a tapestry. Her voice is always authoritative, direct, and knowledgeable, so that even the fictions she creates have the certainty…
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