Photo credit: Rachel Kushner
Romy, the central character in Rachel Kushner’s new novel, The Mars Room
, reflects: “A woman who looks cheap doesn’t have to be respected, and so she has a certain value, a certain cheap value.” Cheap transactions preoccupy The Mars Room
, a sordid and exuberant dive into the many forms exploitation takes in the lower strata of American society. From the economic and racial inequalities that funnel people into sex work, drug addiction, and prison, to the environmental toxicity of poor urban and rural spaces, to the heartbreaking trades people learn to make casually — Report the abuse, or avoid the police? Pay the rent, or say no to a client? — Kushner’s cast of men and women are constantly making choices in a world that feels as fated as a Greek tragedy. It’s one of the many marvels of The Mars Room
that this dark world crackles with hilarity and wit. Flamboyant characters like Death Row inmate Betty LaFrance, with her model’s legs, and sadistic cop Doc provide levity and horror in equal measure; the characters’ stories concede the awfulness of their crimes without sacrificing their humanity or the absurd indignities of prison life. Written from multiple perspectives, some interlocking, others running parallel, and with an evocative focus on environment, The Mars Room
is a rare, rich novel that is immensely complex and yet goes down easy. It's a pleasure to present The Mars Room
as our selection for Indispensable Volume 73
Your novels always take on big subjects, from colonial history and liberation, to Italian politics and contemporary art, and now, the prison industrial complex. Do your stories evolve out of your interests in these historical and intellectual movements, or do you begin with the idea for a central character and work your way outward?
The former. I think that what I turn into fiction definitely evolves from my interests. So far — I've only written three books — but in all three cases, the genesis was completely different.
In each, I felt like there was a natural connection between my life and the subject that I chose to write about. With Telex
, there was much more of a research quotient with it, because I was writing about a time and place that I hadn't lived in. The novel tries to dilate on a specific period of time leading up to the Cuban Revolution, which is before I was born. I spent a lot of time in Cuba, and I really had to look in depth at this incredibly baroque political history of the place. I had wonderful access to people who had lived in this town that I depicted, Nicaro. I had to immerse myself in it fully in order to write that book.
With The Flamethrowers
, it was more like I'd been spending the last decade writing pieces for The-Art-Form
; and my social world is the art world, for whatever reason. It always has been. I'd lived in New York City, and my aunt was an artist. I'd been there in the ’70s. Of course, I was a child and the narrator is an adult. Still, I understood the social style that people have of performing their personalities as artists. In a way, it was a homage to them. I also knew a lot of people just through my personal life in Italy, so it seemed like the story of what happened there in the ’70s with the student and autonomous movements was burgeoning to be told.
With the new book... it was something similar in the sense that I decided in 2012 that I was going to try to learn everything I possibly could about the criminal justice system in California, where we have an enormous prison population. The prisons themselves are the outcome of this incredible prison building boom that California embarked on in the late 1970s. I had been thinking about people in prison pretty much my whole life. It was something that I was eventually going to look into and really turn toward in a major way and it resulted in this book.
In terms of character, it's about the voice or tone. Once I get the tone of the book, I can write it. With The Flamethrowers
it was definitely about the tone of this narrator, who is nameless. I started with this image of her riding her bike across Nevada to reach the Bonneville Salt Flats. It took me, like, two years to write that chapter, because I had to get her tone right. Once I did, I was able to write the rest of the book. With this book, it was actually very similar. That first chapter when Romy’s on the bus took me, I think, two years to write. I had to get her tone correct. Inside of her tone is also her story. It’s the foundation on which everything else can be built.
I want to look, and I want to know, and I want to be the advocate for the guilty, basically.
Dancing in the Mars Room, Romy is objectified, monetized, and vulnerable to violence. In prison it’s much the same; you could even argue that both places allow for a similarly limited level of agency. The novel clearly isn’t arguing that a strip club and a women’s prison are the same thing, but I’m curious about how you conceptualize the relationship between the two spaces, and the ways they each expand or curtail female agency.
Wow. I should be so lucky as to have people take me seriously, and think that the book can elicit conversations about serious contemporary and social issues. For me, I don't think about things in that way when I'm writing.
That probably sounds like the dippy, intuitive answer that a fiction writer gives. For instance, it actually [laughs
] didn't really occur to me that the prison and the strip club are the same. I think that I was so immersed in their specificities as these places I could write about… places that are, in certain ways, familiar to me, but that I think of as quite different.
Indiespensable Volume 73
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I don't believe there's a total lack of agency for somebody who works in the sex industry, if you could include lap dancing as sex work. It's not prostitution. It's different. Sex work's quite common for clever women. It can seem like a solution for somebody who doesn't want to be a part of the straight world, because it doesn't require certain types of conventional conformity. You can make a lot of money. Like Romy says, “they thought they were getting over on us” — they being the men — “and we thought we were getting over on them.” I think she says the atmosphere was quite hostile as a result. It’s not really answerable who's getting over on whom, in that regard. Obviously, the women are subjected to something that I find pretty ruinous, but that's not a judgment on them at all. It's just a matter of who sustains the most damage. For the men, it's just monetary damage.
I've known so many women who are very funny and artistic in their approach to the quandary of having to embody this really passive role that isn't them at all. I don't see it as grim in the way that the prison is grim. Once you're inside the prison, you don't have a voice at all, whereas women in the strip club, in the dressing room, can become a play version of themselves, so there's more agency.
Prison is like Erving Goffman says in his wonderful book, Asylums
. He says that your "identity kit" is taken away from you. He doesn't mean just prison, but also mental hospitals, juvenile delinquent facilities, and probably ships or monasteries. These places where as part of a kind of deeply controlled group living, you can no longer have the trappings of your individuality.
In prison, they take your clothes. You don't have any means to do your hair properly or put on any makeup. All the things that present you as a person with an interior life are missing. It's obviously not just that. There's no privacy. You can't do anything they're not monitoring; you're completely subjected to an endless set of rules.
Whereas with the stripping, it's more like you have to be able to part with this one thing, this one component of what straight people think of as their dignity, and maybe girls who dance know is not really their dignity.
I don't like humorless art. Actually, I don't even really respect it.
I was talking with a coworker about this book, and he commented that it felt very Orange Is the New Black
to him, both in subject and the shifting viewpoints, which I have to admit I hadn’t thought about. Something I’ve wondered about that show, though — and which at times occurred to me while reading The Mars Room
— is that prison can come off as a kind of wacky-fun locus of girl power and female collectivity; the characters and situations are both unbearably horrible and wildly entertaining. There’s something perverse about that mix, and yet I wonder if humor allows you — and by extension, the reader — to access a deeper truth about imprisonment and the prison system?
Let me ask you this first. Do you think that he's comparing my book to that show simply because they both happen to be about women's prison, and there's just been so little about women's prison that he's lumping in the creative projects by subject matter? I suspect that when people do that it's because they consider this a grim, fetish subject. It's not normally dealt with.
They are very different works, but it did inspire me to think about the way you employ humor in the novel. The novel's very funny and very grim at the same time.
Thank you for being open to the humor. That is something of which I'm particularly proud.
When I first decided that I was going to try to write this novel, I felt immediately like if I couldn't find a way to make it funny, it wasn't working, and I hadn't thought deeply enough into my material. And that the only way to do it was to locate what I think of as the spirit inside of the totally miserable conditions of the prison. People are still people, and they find a way to live.
I've spent a lot of time with people who are lifers and people who have convictions of life without the possibility of parole, and in one case, a friend who has two life sentences. I'm not saying they're having a ball because, honestly, they are not. For this to sing as fiction, though, I wanted to find for myself — I wasn't really thinking about the reader — more of the kind of experience I wanted to have. I wanted to find the places where something cracks open and some energy gets released that's positive. I don't know. It just had to be funny.
Not everyone seems comfortable with laughing about this book. People want to acknowledge the seriousness [of the subject matter]. When my parents read it, they thought it was hilarious. [Laughs
] It's because they have already dealt with so much of the sadness, because some of it is familiar to them from people I knew from childhood, and so they have permission to laugh. It's just essential.
Also, I don't like humorless art. Actually, I don't even really respect it. The most vicious writers like Céline
and Thomas Bernhard
are also incredibly funny. I have more respect for novelists, or I just respond in a much stronger way, to work that is really layered, like the humor is layered in. It's got to be dark humor for me. Without it, I just think the writer hasn't done the full work.
I was really struck by how democratic your character representations are. For example, Doc is a terrible person. He's a murderer and a misogynist, but he’s also smart, funny, and given a believable backstory of child abuse that contextualizes his adult life. The same is true for Kurt Kennedy, Romy’s mentally ill stalker, and really all of the characters, Romy included. In a way, it frustrated me because it broke with my desire to see the bad punished and remorseful, but it’s a far more nuanced way of examining guilt and human behavior. Is this more egalitarian approach an outgrowth of your work in the prison system?
Maybe it's an outcome of the work that I've done as a person rather than in the prison system. It's just that this is a journey that I went on for the last six years. I was forced to think very deeply about who goes to prison in our society and why, and think about individuals, and then think about structures that can't be answered by a case by case examination.
The question of guilt becomes irrelevant if you look at who goes to prison. It's primarily very poor people. If the appropriate mechanism for deciding who needs to stay there is guilt or innocence, does that mean that the reason I haven't gone to prison is that I'm a good person? No. The reason I haven't gone to prison is that I'm a middle class person. In a bourgeois, capitalist society like ours, there is a certain degree of chance about who's going to end up in prison, but it’s going to be mostly from that problematic layer at the bottom.
I became convinced that the innocence-guilt axis was not going to lead me to the truth. At the same time, people have done some shit to get into prison. You can't pretend that's not there. I know people who want to pretend it's not there. They haven't gone in, and taken a look, and talked to people.
I want to look, and I want to know, and I want to be the advocate for the guilty, basically. I'm not going to pretend that they went into prison for a drug charge, which is overwhelmingly not the case in California. Ninety percent of the people in the state system have been convicted of what the state considers "serious, violent felonies." I don't use that language myself. I'm just quoting you from state statistics. Within that, I want to think about people's lives. What happened to them? Where did harm occur that then led them to commit some kind of harm?
Doc came to me very easily. I met a cop who was in a situation somewhat similar to Doc's in the sense that he was serving life without possibility of parole on a sensitive needs yard in a California prison. I talked to him in his cell, and it was like his essence went into me in about five minutes. The corrections officer guarding him had walked away. He started telling me how he'd killed people when he worked in the Hollenbeck Division in the LAPD. He said he had not been convicted of these crimes. Obviously, he's convicted of others, contract killings. He told me all this stuff and it needed somewhere to go. I started thinking about him.
I understand that Doc’s hateful to people, but he's my character, and I was able to occupy or inhabit his sensibility far too easily. I can't personally be disgusted by him. I found his character the easiest thing in the book to write. It just rolled out. He felt real. I think it's because of that interaction I had where I got enough vectors from this one person that I could build somebody who would do a certain kind of work to speak for the type of person that I met, if that makes sense.
The end of the novel is the radical cut, like at the end of a film. It goes black and the credits roll.
It does. I want to go back to something you were just saying about the prison demographic.
At the end of the novel, Romy is thinking about her son, Jackson, and she says, "I gave him life. It is quite a lot to give. It is the opposite of nothing, and the opposite of nothing is not something. It is everything." It's this incredibly powerful, beautiful statement. But it made me so sad because I thought: Now this beautiful child is in the foster care system, which is the same system that failed Doc, and Conan, and so many other characters in this novel. Where is he going to be in 20 years? Is he going to be in prison too? I don't know if that was intentional on your part, but it was a really intriguing place for the novel to end.
Towards the end of the book, I felt this intense yearning to figure out a way that Romy could glimpse her own life as being part of something larger than herself.
The unit of the life becomes quite vexing when it's used as a form of condemnation, like: You're going to serve life.
What does it mean? Life is being turned against you. Your life has to be lived in service to the state. They call it your state commitment. I wanted Romy to somehow find a way to think her way out of that, to something larger than she was.
I reread a lot of Nietzsche
. I felt like, weirdly, Nietzsche really helped me to think about fate. He has this concept of Amor Fati
. It's like, "Loving your fate," meaning finding a way to actively grip and claim whatever gets handed to you. I was thinking about that at the end, and I wasn't thinking so much of what was going to happen afterward to her son.
Maybe it's just my own way of thinking about novels. Once a book is over, it's really over for me. There isn't that ellipsis feeling of, And somewhere in a parallel universe, life continues for these people.
You know what I'm saying? There are some writers who maybe will go, Oh, I really miss my characters.
I don't think that way. The end of the novel is the radical cut, like at the end of a film. It goes black and the credits roll.
What you're also asking about is this phenomenon of the children of incarcerated people, and about the foster care system. I meet so many people in prison who came out of foster care. Once you start being a problem in foster care — I'm not an expert in that field, but just by absorbing other people's anecdotes — it seems to be the case that people get shunted pretty quickly into institutions from foster care. If you commit some kind of wrong, and you're with a home, then you go to a group home. If you screw up there, then they send you to YA (Youth Authority). A lot of people have told me that — not a lot, but critical people have told me — that Youth Authority was a very practical training ground for how to be in prison.
The things you learn about to do well in prison do not help you in any way to be a free person, and in fact, really prevent you from understanding how to live in the free world. It really is a kind of condemnation for people to dabble early in institutions. I'm sure of it, just based on what people have told me. I've also known lawyer friends and a cousin of mine, who worked for an organization called Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. The scenario that I depict in the book — the way that Romy loses custody of her son — is common.
That was a heartbreaking scene.
I know. It is heartbreaking. I have a 10-year-old. I think that probably — I wouldn't have claimed it, but — maybe it assisted me in writing the book, because it's a profound thing to be a caretaker for another person. I think it's just allowed me to, unfortunately, have to imagine deeply into what it would be like to be somewhere where I couldn't make him safe. It would be agonizing.
I became convinced that the innocence-guilt axis is not going to lead me to the truth.
A theme running through all of the novel’s main settings is environmental toxicity. The city is grimy; there’s fracking and clearcutting in the mountains; dust and — in an amazing image — turkey feathers littering the highway; and the farmland is brown, bleak, and flat, devoid of animal life. Why was it important to you that environment, and to an extent nature, be a central element of the novel?
Nature was very important to me while I was writing this. It is to me in life, but these prisons are sited far away from the metropolis that generates their inhabitants. Most of the people in the California prison system come from the Greater Los Angeles Area. It's a swath of urban living in LA, if you include not just LA County, but Orange County, San Bernardino County, Riverside County, and Ventura County. Twenty million people live here. We have an incredibly high poverty rate. The populations for the prisons are being generated here, but they are then shipped very far from their families up the Central Valley, which is a story of industrial farming from its inception.
It was never a place of small family farms that were then broken up and taken over by corporate growers. It began as corporate farming, industrial farming, factory farming. It's a long, complicated, probably boring story for people who aren't interested in why these prisons ended up there. It has to do with the geography of California, and a major drought that occurred here in 1977. There was excess land that farmers could sell off to the state to build prisons. They promised employment, and a boom for local suffering, blighted economies.
When you drive to the prison, you go through these industrial farmlands. The big women's prison here is surrounded by almond orchards. Then the Sierra Nevada, which is a flank of mountains and foothills that follows all the way along the spine of the Central Valley, can be seen from the main yard of the prison — both the one in real life and the fictional one in my novel. It seemed natural to have some characters gazing at those mountains, and then possibly have a character [Gordon] who lived in them and could speak of that. He's the one reading Ted Kaczynski's diaries, and thinking about Ted's anger, and solitude, and relationship to nature.
I had never read the Kaczynski diaries before, and at first I didn’t recognize him. He’s kind of sympathetic in his love for nature, until his violence emerges.
This might be interesting to you: those diaries were coded diaries. They were written just as numbers. When you look at them, they're handwritten in ballpoint pen. They just say: "11, 13, 468, 1, 2…” and go on for pages and pages and pages. Ted Kaczynski made a code for the diaries, and hid them in the wall of his cabin. When the FBI moved that cabin, they found the code.
Somebody I know actually owns those diaries, a mathematician, and he built the computer software to decode them. He allowed me to use them in the book. I think that the novel’s comparison to Thoreau also originates with this person who owns the diaries. He's a filmmaker named James Benning.
He and I share an interest in American transcendentalism. When you first look at what I included of Ted, yeah, he was somebody who lived for a long time by himself in nature, just basically living off the land. I don't find him sympathetic, because I know too much. He killed people, and he's an angry misanthrope. Like the part I included where he trashes the snowmobilers' cabin, which quite clearly has no moral justification, as he ends up saying.
It's just because he's pissed, because they're making noise that cramps his style. He thinks that he's allowed to determine what's right for other people. That maybe raises, again, the specter of this question of: How do we live in a society together, and what does it mean to live in nature? It's not easily answerable, but quite fascinating to me.
I spoke with Rachel Kushner on March 27, 2018.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the bestselling author of The Flamethrowers
, a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times
Top Ten Book of 2013. Her first novel, Telex from Cuba
was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Her latest novel is The Mars Room
. She lives in Los Angeles.