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Notes from the Inside

Rachel Kushner
Rachel Kushner; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

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 of fact.

This talent for verisimilitude shapes The Mars Room. Kushner has described how she worked on the novel by spending time in prisons meeting inmates and “covertly” following criminology students as they toured the facilities. The amount of detail she presents here, some amassed and some imagined, is astonishing. I wonder whether inmates or former inmates reading her book will know which is which. She details the processing the prisoners must go through, the restrictions and regulations that suffocate the lives of those inside and even those who visit them:

No orange clothing
No clothing in any shade of blue
No white clothing
No yellow clothing
No beige or khaki clothing
No green clothing

This is just the beginning of the list, which lasts two pages.

Kushner shows the day-to-day operations of the prisons, for example the wood shops where prisoners work for 22 cents an hour, making

Judges’ benches. Jury box seating. Courtroom gates. Witness stands. Lecterns. Judges’ gavels. Paneling for judges’ quarters. Wooden courtroom cages for in-custody defendants. Wood frames for the state seal that goes in the judges’ chambers, and judges’ seats, which then went to upholstery, next door.

On death row, the women pass the time trying to draw attention to their cases, calling lawyers and attempting to sway public opinion before they have to get back to work sewing sandbags for the highway: “If you see a pile of sandbags along the side of a California road, they have been touched by the hands of our celebrities.” Kushner has an ear for the talk of the prison. “The cops call [death row] ‘grade A,’” Romy thinks. “They say it about fifty times a day and probably the prison administration thought it was bad for staff morale to say ‘death row’ over and over.”

It’s the system in its entirety that interests Kushner: the way the prison creates its own microcosm, inexplicable from the outside, entirely self-contained. She details how prisoners get around rules: “We send ice cream sandwiches from canteen through the toilets, wrapped in Kotex as insulation, then plastic wrap.” She describes the prison economy, in which inmates pay one another to be able to stay in a particular cell or try to entrap men on the outside, pen pals they hope to reel in to improve their conditions: “It was crucial to have runners—people who sent you money inside.” One young woman buys her runner from an aging inmate. Others set up websites with fake photos in the hopes that the runners, who are often in desperate situations themselves, will bite: “It was not that different from the Mars Room, except here they were preening and selling their asses for prepackaged junk food.”

Yet Kushner is also keen to show that prison is a place where people live, where they form friendships, where they have sex—as Romy does with her trans cellmate Conan, after a party where they get high from stockpiled psych meds:

What you do is buy peanut butter from canteen, or, if, like me, you have no money for canteen, you share Conan’s peanut butter. Put a dab of it on the roof of your mouth before you go to pill call. When you open your mouth like a horse to show them you properly swallowed your meds, you’re cleared, but the pill is in the peanut butter, unswallowed…. [Conan] mashed them with the bottom of a shampoo bottle and made “punch,” which is pills dissolved in a container of iced tea. It’s a short island iced tea.

The “regular people” may not see chain night, but here is all of Stanville—its movements and its jokes, its cruelties and its depressions, even its moments of near happiness, of almost forgetting—brought straight to them.

Is there room for an individual in this harsh system? This is a question Kushner seems to be asking. Our case study is Romy, a twenty-nine-year-old white woman who has ended up in jail seemingly by fate. She is tough, smart, stubborn. She is not educated, but she reads a lot, especially books about the San Francisco streets where she grew up. (One thing Kushner has a special feel for is the symbiosis of a person and her native city.) She has a son whom she loves, whom she is determined to raise right. This is a woman who has done what she could to control her future, only to realize that it was written before she could make any decisions at all.

Romy’s story interrupts the prison accounts in carefully timed flashbacks. It makes for brutal reading. The traditional warning signs are all there: the absent father, the distracted mother who makes her ramen from a cup and then disappears to spend the evening with yet another boyfriend, a youthful curiosity about drugs that later turns into a habit. “We were all hopeful things would go differently,” thinks Romy. “They did not go differently. They went this way.” Kushner’s descriptions of poverty are full of detail and empathy. In one early scene, twelve-year-old Romy, who recently has gotten high for the first time, is approached by a homeless man in a bus shelter looking for Valium. She can sell him some, she brags. The man takes off his shoe and scratches his number on the wall of the bus shelter: “He needed his drugs and was ready to do business with a twelve-year-old girl. He needed to believe her, when it was plain she was probably lying.”

When a deluded stalker named Kurt Kennedy fixates on Romy at the Mars Room, her desire for a stable life cannot counter the pull of social determinism. She leaves San Francisco to avoid Kennedy and live near her boyfriend, Jimmy Darling, with whom she has developed a kind, easy relationship. She tries to make a happy home for her son, Jackson, whose existence motivates her. She’s sober and self-sufficient.

But she has no opportunity to enjoy this life. Kennedy follows her to Los Angeles and shows up on her doorstep. The murder is a form of self-defense, but criminal court has no interest in justice. Her lawyer isn’t even hers, he’s just the guy who failed to defend Johnson, the man who came before her in court. He barely knows her case. On the day of the closing arguments:

Johnson’s lawyer seemed drunk. He shouted at the jury and stomped his foot…. The jury didn’t want anything to do with him, or me. They complete a form and handed it to the judge. There are two boxes on the form. The foreman checked one.

Romy goes to jail. Her mother gets custody of Jackson, but when she dies he becomes a ward of the state, lost in a system as sadistic and tangled as the one that holds his mother. Romy doesn’t know if she will ever see him again. No one will help. Johnson’s lawyer, her lawyer, tells her he’s gone into retirement. She shouldn’t contact him anymore. The guards tell her that if she wanted to be a mother, she should have acted differently. But could she have acted differently if she wanted to? “I don’t plan on living a long life,” Romy thinks. “Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all. The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not, until you don’t exist, and then your plans are meaningless.” She is as unlucky as a descendant of Zola’s Macquarts, inexorably hurled toward despair.

Viviane Moos/Corbis/Getty Images
An incarcerated mother with her child at Rikers Island jail, December 1996

Romy tells her own story. She is the main voice of the novel, occasionally interrupted by others in the prison system. The tone is controlled, dispassionate, sometimes pierced by a jab of gallows humor:

The lawyer had given me the phone number of child welfare, which he said might tell me the name of Jackson’s case manager, but I could only contact people with a Global Tel Link account…. I called Jimmy Darling, but the call did not go through, since he didn’t have Global Tel Link. I told myself if I ever got out, I’d blow up Global Tel Link.

Two struggles lurk beneath this disciplined meter: Romy’s attempt to remain human despite the circumstances, and Kushner’s effort to tell such a desperate story without succumbing to sentimentality, the curse of the protest novel.

Memories of another book whispered in my mind as I read this novel: Random Family (2003), Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s journalistic account of a family living in the Bronx. Like Kushner’s book, Random Family is a detailed report of poverty and the American prison system, an attempt to show the impact of American inequality in all its cruelty. LeBlanc spent eleven years following the family, going to trials, taping conversations, attending parties, sleeping on the floor, befriending and ultimately exposing a tangle of people as they go in and out of jail, move from one crummy apartment to another, get pregnant, split up, suffer.

When the book begins, LeBlanc is following the girlfriend of a drug dealer who will soon end up in jail because she refuses to take a plea deal:

Jessica lived on Tremont Avenue, on one of the poorer blocks in a very poor section of the Bronx. She dressed even to go to the store. Chance was opportunity in the ghetto, and you had to be prepared for anything.

Less than one hundred pages later, Jessica has been interrogated for her boyfriend’s crimes. She soon ends up in Rikers. “Bad day,” she writes in a day planner. “(Went to jail.)”

Random Family was praised when it was published for being “like a novel.” Like a novel because the story was told as a narrative. Like a novel because the story hinged on several characters, many of them girlfriends and daughters sucked into the crimes of the men they loved. Like a novel because, although it described the lives of people controlled by forces beyond them—welfare reform, drug laws, the rise in prosecutorial power—these forces were woven into the story rather than explicitly described. “In the meantime, national changes in welfare policy had finally caught up with her, and Coco either had to return to school or go to work.” The reader is given as little information about the structural questions behind the subjects’ lives as the subjects would have had themselves.

“It was before mass incarceration,” one inmate in The Mars Room says of her first prison experience. “As if mass incarceration were some kind of natural disaster,” thinks Romy. “Or a cataclysm, like 9/11, with a before and after.” But the reader knows that mass incarceration isn’t a natural disaster, it’s a man-made one, created by years of hateful policy decisions about drug use and petty crime with no regard for the personhood of those they affect. It’s a man-made problem that could have a man-made solution, except that there’s little will to solve it, and the will that exists is nearly powerless.

Characters in The Mars Room find themselves pulled toward destinies they don’t understand, though the explanation is fairly simple. They are poor. “Sammy’s crime was that she’d wet the bed,” Romy tells us of one character who grew up in a trailer with her addict mother. When Sammy got a rash on her legs, a neighbor called Child Protective Services. Kicked out of a group home, she ends up in Youth Authority, then turns “tricks to support her mother’s” drug habit. “Many people she’d been in YA with were here at Stanville. Her network was extensive. It was a lifetime of prison connections.” In The Mars Room, Kushner has written a powerful account of the prison-industrial complex as the complex that it is: byzantine, sprawling, brutal, constructed of channels and links that even its inhabitants cannot see.

What can a novelist do that a journalist cannot? I began to wonder this as I read The Mars Room. A novelist doesn’t have to worry about exploiting her subjects. The subjects don’t exist. A kind of freedom emerges: to describe thoughts and actions that no one has said into a voice recorder. A journalist’s work rests on the facts. A novelist’s work rests on a kind of truth: truth in a particular imagined world. Journalism is driven by circumstance. Things that happened must be reported. Novels, conventional ones anyway, are usually driven by plot. Things that didn’t happen can still be told.

The one character in the book whose life is not bound by circumstance is Gordon Hauser, a Ph.D. dropout who teaches GED classes at the prison. He’s the only person who is able to leave Stanville; our contemporary scenes from the outside are scenes of Gordon. Gordon is not a bad man, but he is naive and clueless. He doesn’t understand what’s going on around him. He underestimates the prisoners, and they manipulate him. He thinks one inmate at another prison is attracted to him. She’s actually just targeting him on behalf of her girlfriend. When they kiss, he is fired. He moves to Stanville for a new job, but also as a kind of personal experiment. Living near the prison means living alone in a cabin in the California mountains, where every night he falls asleep to what sounds like women screaming. Only slightly reassuring: the noise comes from mountain lions.

Gordon studied Thoreau in graduate school. He decides to use his time in the mountains above Stanville as an exercise in good old American independence. “[My] Thoreau year,” he tells a friend. “Your Kaczynski year,” the friend responds. Both Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski lived in one-room cabins, and shared, the friend points out, “reverence of nature, self-reliance. K was even a reader of Walden.” Bits of Kaczynski’s diaries are interspersed within the account: “Out walking in the bitter cold I spotted a porcupine in a tree and shot it.” Gordon becomes more and more disillusioned with the prison; his gestures of goodwill are meaningless in such an oppressive order.

In his diaries, Kaczynski is mean and unpredictable. He destroys things without reason. Will Gordon also lash out? The reader wonders. But Gordon does not become a domestic terrorist or mean and unpredictable. He goes back to graduate school and gets a master’s degree in social work. Reality exerts its gravity. Even in our worrying times, more people become master’s students than inflict groundless cruelty. Kaczynski’s diary is a kind of alternate path for Gordon, one he does not take. But what happens to the mind that reads those texts? When we last see him, shortly before the book’s somewhat contrived ending, Gordon is thinking about a prison escape he heard about on the news as a child, with barely an emotion marked on the page.

“While I’m personally interested in the concept of mercy, it’s almost beside the point when you start to think on a larger scale about how society is structured,” Kushner said in an interview with The New Yorker. “Individual destinies recede, and one sees a set of relations, an arrangement, a set of allocations.” It is perhaps for this reason that The Mars Room seems to sometimes fall into the pitfalls of the social realist novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Characters in the book often come across more strongly as circumstances than as real people; some of the odder figures—a white, middle-class woman who apparently killed her child and won’t stop talking, or Conan, Romy’s trans roommate, who seems to float even when held in chains—exist only on the margins, though I would have liked to see more of them.

Kushner’s skill at amassing information, impressive and remarkable as it is, begins to hamper the movement of the novel. It often has the feel of a script: the camera pans in and out of rooms; scenes are marked by jump cuts. It will, I imagine, be compared with the most visible representation of women’s prisons in recent popular culture: the television show Orange Is the New Black. The characters seem constrained by an adherence to the way things are or the way they usually work. Nonfactual, nonrational, nonpurposeful sentences about feelings and regrets and observations are walled out. There’s so much information on the page that the reader cannot hear the characters breathe.

In a three-hundred-plus-page book about women whose freedom has been prematurely stolen from them, the question of regret takes up only a few sentences:

The quiet of the cell is where the real question lingers in the mind of a woman. The one true question, impossible to answer. The why did you. The how. Not the practical how, the other one. How could you have done such a thing. How could you.

“The one true question,” writes Kushner—and yet it is introduced, presented, and dismissed off the page; we barely hear of it again.