“I sometimes think San Francisco is cursed. I mostly think it’s a sad suckville of a place. People say it’s beautiful, but the beauty is only visible to newcomers, and invisible to those who had to grow up there.”
In Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, 29 year-old Romy Hall is serving two life sentence (plus an additional six years) for something bad, something she actually admits she did. As the old saying goes, prisons are full of innocent men and women, but in this case, Romy is guilty and now lives out her life at the Stanville Women’s Correctional facility in Northern California.
The novel opens very strongly with Romy, being transferred from one prison to another, describing a bus ride “up the valley” It’s two a.m., the women are shackled and counted, and Romy watches the world go by from the bus window. One pregnant 15-year-old is “in the cage on account of her age, to protect her from the rest of us,” but her whimpering attracts the attention of a more aggressive prisoner. This scene sets the stage for the story which centres on society’s outcasts: one woman who murdered her own child, trans Conan, and the novel’s central character, Romy Hall who grew up in the Sunset area of San Francisco. Running wild and unchecked, by age 11 Romy meets trouble; soon she’s more or less a street kid, shoplifting, doing drugs and eventually living in the Tenderloin, working in the Mars Room, a seedy strip joint:
If you showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos were misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night. Girls maced customers in the face and sent us all outside, hacking and choking. One dancer got mad at d’Artagnan. the night manager, and set the dressing room on fire. She was let go, it’s true, but that was exceptional.
In prison, Romy is surrounded by poor, disenfranchised women–women who’ve had terrible things happen to them, terrible things done to them, and who’ve been altered as a result:
I said everything was fine but nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me. The problem was not moral. It was nothing to do with morality. These men dimmed my glow. Made me numb to touch, and angry. I gave, and got something in exchange, but it was never enough. I extracted from the wallets–which was how I thought of the men, as walking wallets–as much as I possible could. The knowledge that it was not a fair exchange coated me in a certain film.
The novel, which moves from first to third person narrator, goes back over Romy’s past so that we eventually learn the path that led her to prison but then there’s also claustrophobic prison life. The other prisoners Romy mentions seem types rather than individuals: a masculine looking trans and a “butch security force.”
Another main character is Gordon Hauser, and while he’s a teacher who works in the prison, there’s also something lost about him. He never finished his PhD, was teaching community college as an adjunct, and ends up teaching in prisons because it’s steady work. Gordon retreats to the Sierra foothills where he reads Ted Kaczynski.
Romy’s strong voice is not entirely unsympathetic, but I suspect this is because her intelligence is evident :
Something brewed in me over the years I worked at the Mars Room, sitting in laps, deep into this flawed exchange. This thing in me brewed and foamed. And when I directed it–a decision that was never made; instead, instincts took over–that was it.
Through Romy, the novel tackles some big questions, but ultimately, for this reader, the tale was relentlessly depressing and a rather bludgeoning experience. The novel’s message re: justice for poor females who are frequently victims in various ways, and end up behind bars as fodder for American’s prison system, makes a social-conscience novel which is heavy-handed, one directional, and unsubtle. The correctional officers are fat, stupid, abusive etc. Wentworth, a favourite Australian series of mine, in spite of being occasionally over the top, addressed the same issues, but somehow the intimacy, plot, social issues and moral grey areas were much better defined.
I had a friend, a correctional officer, who told me the women were the ‘worst” and he preferred working in a men’s prison. I thought of him as I read this.