Sentenced at Conception: The Imprisoned and Unloved in Rachel Kushner’s “The Mars Room”

RACHEL KUSHNER’S FIRST TWO novels, Telex from Cuba (2008) and The Flamethrowers (2013), earned her a firm place in contemporary American letters. Like those, The Mars Room is an enormously ambitious project profoundly rooted in a particular time and place. Kushner’s intellectual gifts are prominent throughout her third novel, which traces the fates of characters delicately treading the line between desperate and hopeful before arriving at a cinematic conclusion.

Set deep in California’s Central Valley at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility from 2003 to 2008, The Mars Room tells the story of Romy Leslie Hall, who is serving “two consecutive life sentences, plus six years” for the murder of her stalker, Kurt Kennedy. The novel opens with her middle-of-the-night transfer to Stanville from L.A. County jail. Shackled on a bus with 59 other convicts, Romy only intermittently pays attention to the anxious interactions between the women and the guards as her mind drifts to her son, Jackson, who she’ll tell us later — as her internal tension mounts — is “the grain of reality in the center of her thoughts.”

Romy’s poignant account of her past is stripped of self-pity, yet it is painfully earnest and always direct. Here, for instance, she describes the first time she took drugs:

My first dabble in it was morphine, a pill that someone else melted in a spoon and helped me inject, a guy named Bill and I hadn’t thought that much about him or what the drug would be like but the careful way he tied off my arm and found my vein, the way the needle went in, so thin and delicate, the whole experience of this random guy I never saw again shooting me up in an abandoned house was exactly what a young girl dreams love can be.

Here and elsewhere the reader comes to understand that Romy has never been loved. She loves her son — Jackson is her everything — and she has pursued Platonic love, but her friends have inevitably, and without malice, made her life worse. No one has ever taken care of Romy or shown her kindness. And men — until she meets Conan, a female-to-male trans prisoner — have been consistently unkind.

The Mars Room is the name of the San Francisco strip club where Romy started working young. Of her time there, she tells the reader: “I said everything was fine but nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me. The problem was not moral. These men dimmed my glow.” This dimming was relentless, and the reader is made to see how woman after woman fell prey to it there. But Romy’s story also includes her heartbreaking rape at the hands of a wealthy, middle-aged man who spotted her on the street in the middle of a downpour and offered to help her get home but insisted she first follow him to his hotel room. At the time, she was 11 years old.

The unloved are this novel’s focus and purpose. The basic tenet of The Mars Room is that individuals do not exist. Each of us is defined by our relationships. If none of those relationships contains any love, we are doomed. Thus, the majority of Kushner’s characters now in prison were sentenced at conception.

It is a devastating message, and the book is not an easy read. The reader is consistently implicated, as when Romy says of her rape as a child,

You would not have gone. I understand that. You would not have gone up to his room. You would not have asked him for help. You would not have been wandering lost at midnight at age eleven. You would have been safe and dry and asleep, at home with your mother and your father who cared about you and had rules, curfews, expectations. Everything for you would have been different. But if you were me, you would have done what I did. You would have gone, hopeful and stupid, to get the money for the taxi.

Nor did Romy get justice when she went to court. The incompetent, overworked public defender assigned to her bungled every part of her case. Romy tells us, “The jury did not learn what Kurt had done to me, the tireless stalking, the waiting, the following, the calling, the calling again, the surprise appearances.” And so she was sentenced to spend what remained of her life at Stanville, away from her son and with no hope of reprieve.

By the time the prisoners arrive at Stanville, one of them has died. Inside, the rest are made to “slather” themselves in lotion “to kill lice and whatever else.” Although Romy attempts to intervene, a heavily pregnant 15-year-old named Button Sanchez is forced to follow this procedure, too, since she has not yet been officially designated pregnant. A horrific scene follows. Button goes into labor and is ignored by the guards as she “screams in agony.” When Romy and two other prisoners try to help, they are pepper-sprayed and forced into cages. Button’s baby is confiscated immediately, and she is given no time to recover. (She later adopts a bunny she catches in the prison yard, sewing it little clothes and playing with it until her cellmate Teardrop boils and eats it in front of her.)

Kushner structures the novel like interlocking Möbius strips that shift between different voices in first and third person. The narrative loops around and around, from character to character, as the reader learns more about the two women who tried to help Button, including Conan, the courageous trans prisoner who may be the brightest spot in the book. He is also the only positive masculine presence in a world otherwise plagued by male aggression of one kind or another.

Two characters double as proxies for the reader: Jimmy Darling, Romy’s documentary filmmaker boyfriend, who gives up on her when she gets arrested, and Gordon Hauser, who teaches a GED class at Stanville and develops complicated emotional relationships with female protégées. Gordon brings them seemingly innocuous contraband from the outside world, where he also researches their cases in his spare time. He learns, for example, that Button and two teenagers robbed a Chinese college student, beat him with a baseball bat, and left the scene without realizing they’d killed him. Gordon thinks,

The word violence was depleted and generic from overuse and yet it still had power, still meant something, but multiple things. There were stark acts of it: beating a person to death. And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools. There were large-scale acts of it, the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in a single year, for a specious war of lies and bungling, a war that might have no end, but according to prosecutors, the real monsters were teenagers like Button Sanchez.

But Gordon’s intermittent outrage never amounts to much since it tends to turn into self-pity, and his fascination with these women’s crimes — which is our fascination with these women’s crimes — feels a little creepy.

Part of what the looping structure of The Mars Room accomplishes is an emphasis on all relationships — not only loving and loveless ones, but also those we don’t even realize we’re in. The unintended consequences of every minor act of disrespect, of every little lack of consideration, may well be enormous. Kushner’s greatest achievement in this unique work of brilliance and rigor is to urge us all to take responsibility for the unconscionable state of the world in which we operate blithely every single day.

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Novelist and translator Jennifer Croft is a 2018–’19 Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, n+1, Guernica, Electric Literature, the New Republic, the Guardian, and elsewhere.

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