I am not a fan of prison drama. Orange Is The New Black? No thank you. Shawshank Redemption? I just don’t like the prison setting. It may have something to do with an innate suspicion of large numbers of people being together; it may have something to do with having been a criminal barrister and having held a number of client conferences in prisons. The whole concept makes my skin crawl: the pseudo-military set-up, the uniformity, the control and authority and abuses and pettinesses and alliances.
So picking up Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, set in a women’s prison in America, I did not have high hopes of enjoying it. And in a world still reeling from images and stories of ICE agents removing children from their mothers in America, a novel focused on not just women but mothers in prison felt too on-the-nose to be engaging.
But, boy was I wrong!
So, what elevated the novel?
I’m going for voice. The voice of Remy Hall who, for the main part, is our narrator. It says a lot about the writing of the novel that I found myself reading it in my head in an American accent before the novel revealed her upbringing in San Francisco and, briefly, Los Angeles. Written in a stream of consciousness, full of American prison slang, Hall spends Chain Night, her transport journey to Stanville Women’s Prison, relating to us some of her history whilst listening to – or trying to block out – the stories of other women around her. We catch glimpses of Conan, the talkative and antagonistic Laura Lipp,, a “girl in a cage who looked about eight months pregnant, her belly so large they had to get an extra length of waist chain to shackle her hands to her sides… They had her in the cage on account of her age, to protect her from the rest of us. She was fifteen.” We – although the other prisoners don’t – hear of Jackson, Romy’s son, and the stalker Creep Kurt Kennedy who had harassed Romy from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Once at Stanville, the cast widens considerably as we meet Sammy Fernandez, Teardrop, Button and Betty LeFrance and many others, as the novel stretches over years. We meet Serenity Smith, a male-to-female transitioned and gender re-classified prisoner.
The style of the narrative makes you piece each piece of information together, stitching a patchwork image of each character, judging and evaluating and re-evaluating each piece of information ourselves. It is a very writerly read.
Kushner does deviate from the central narrative on a number of occasions to explore in a more conventional third person narrative, the stories of Doc, a corrupt policeman tied in with Betty LeFrance, and Gordon Hauser, a teacher at the prison. When we first meet Hauser, we see him in another women’s prison becoming over-familiar and obsessed with an inmate and it is inevitable that he and Romy would come across each other and their stories becoming entwined.
Kushner’s cast of characters are challenging. They are baby killers and murderers, serving life or lives or on Death Row. Perpetrators of those crimes which society doesn’t want to face and, therefore, removes behind razor wire, electrified fences and thick walls. Their attitude and valuing of life is, at times shocking, as we hear, for example, of Betty LeFrance’s crimes.
Sammy and I passed the pruno back and forth, and she told me Betty had arranged her husband’s murder to get his life insurance. You don’t talk about people’s crimes. But Betty was different. Death row was different. They were the big celebrities of Stanville, and celebrity gossip has a role.
The hit man who killed her husband was her lover, but while she was waiting for the money to come through, Betty worried he was turning on her, so she had her hit man killed by a dirty cop she met at a bar in Simi Valley. She was going to have the second hit man—the dirty cop who’d killed the first hit man—knocked off when they caught her. She was afraid he’d squeal, or threaten to, and blackmail her. They were in Las Vegas, partying on her life insurance money. She asked a security guard at the El Cortez casino if he would murder the cop for a payoff.
And yet Kushner makes all of them engaging and sympathetic as well as horrific. The world of the prison is a different place and runs on different rules from the outside world. I did write “real world” there, before changing it: the world of the prison is every bit as real, if not significantly more real, than the world Gordon Hauser inhabits. There are real moments of tenderness, albeit often undercut by violence such as when
I had started helping Button with her homework for Hauser’s class. I took more pleasure in it than I would have guessed. It was a big-sister thing. Sammy was my big sister and I was Button’s, and Conan was something like the dad. We had a family. It was not that comforting, but it was something, even if Button was a pain in the ass. Always angry, and ready to fight. But when Teardrop ate Button’s pet rabbit, I saw a different side to Button.
It is, at heart, a novel of perceptions: it challenges our perceptions as a society of criminals and those on the outskirts of our society; it challenges our perceptions as readers of the characters as their stories unravel and knit together. The most powerful example of this challenge comes towards the end of the novel: having built Creep Kennedy as the antagonist in Romy Hall’s story, a dangerous and obsessive man killed in self-defence, the novel does give him a voice and tells his story. Not unexpectedly, his account of his relationship with Remy Hall is very different from hers and forces us to significantly re-evaluate her story. Was her action in self-defence after all? Was Kennedy so dangerous? But do we change the way we react to her? Do we not all craft narratives from our own lives to help them make sense and justify our own actions – and how many of them would stand up to objective scrutiny? In many ways, it actually emphasises the tragedy of Romy’s incarceration.
This novel raises questions the unvoiced in our society: prostitutes, sex workers, addicts, even sufferers of abuse. It questions what prison is for, about the inadequacy of our justice system. But at no point does it ever lose the sense of humanity, or the power of the human story. At no point do we look at these characters as “evil”; they are just people who made mistakes or were ill or had no choice. Victims as much as the people they killed were. Victims of a system which at times had a Kafkaesque, Catch-22 feel such as when Gordon Hauser researches a prisoner, Geronima who killed her husband and served her time as an exemplary prisoner but cannot be released because she tells the parole board that she is innocent.
Every time Geronima went before the parole board, which Gordon pictured as a series of Phyllis Schlaflys all in a row, frowning, with stiff hair, in industrial pantyhose and little rippling American flag pins like Republican candidates wore for political debates, she told the board she was innocent. Her supporters said she’d done her time and was no longer a threat. She faced the parole board and said, I’m innocent. It made no sense. But Gordon understood why she said it.
One other problem I have with prison stories is probably the same problem inmates have: the tedium. It is, literally, a setting which is so tightly controlled that the opportunities for conflict and resolution are limited. Once your character is in prison for life, they are – well – in prison for life. Or two lives. Where can you go from there? Riots? Escapes? Violent or tragic death?
Kushner goes for a somewhat half-hearted but successful – much to Romy’s own surprise – escape attempt. Sorry if that was a bit of a spoiler. What was interesting was reading this escape after reading Richard Powers’ The Overstory is the sudden evocation of the power of nature, the nature from which Romy has been excluded for years, and it even touches on the same redwoods that Power’s celebrates.
The conclusion is beautifully managed: tragic, redemptive, hopeful.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Date: 7th June 2018