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Rachel Kushner, Foe of Prisons, and Her New Novel, “The Mars Room”

“Women are the first people to be forgotten in prisons. Their mothers don’t visit them and neither do their children.”

– – Rachel Kushner

Prison literature has been mostly literature written by men, for men and about men, though women show up in the pages of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, all of them best-selling books.

Thirty-six-years ago, Professor H. Bruce Franklin wrote a groundbreaking study of the subject titled Prison Literature in America: The Victim as Criminal and Artist

If Franklin were to rewrite his book and expand the arc of his reach he would have to include The Mars Room (Scribner, $27), a new novel by Rachel Kushner that’s largely about women in prison, though it has men characters, too, and appeals to men as well as to women. From beginning to end, it throbs with the menace of impending sexual assault and it includes characters from across a broad spectrum of gender.

“Women are the first people to be forgotten in prisons,” Kushner said recently at Book Passage, an independent bookstore in Marin where author Ayelet Waldman introduced her and predicted that The Mars Room would win a Pulitzer. Kushner added, “Mothers don’t visit their daughters and neither do their children.”

A Pulitzer would bring the novel to an even wider audience than it has so far attracted thanks to glowing reviews in The L.A. TimesThe New York Times and The New Yorker.

It would make more readers aware of the inhumanity of the criminal injustice system in the United States, and of what critics of incarceration call “the prison industrial complex.” A Pulitzer would bring into the open what the author herself calls, “people made invisible by the state.”

Kushner’s new novel—her third—takes on “The state.” It also has flashes of poetry and lyrical writing, too, especially at the end where Romy Hall, the main character, experiences a kind of hallucination in the free world of trees and bees.

There are electrifying phrases such as “the oily axel of time” and sentences like “maybe even guilt and innocence were not even a real axis.” Near the end of the novel, Romy looks into the night sky and observes that it’s “junked with stars.” Junk and junkies are everywhere; the universe has been trashed and nature abused.

There are loads of criminals in The Mars Room. Some of them are dirty cops. There are also victims, though there are no real artists in the way that Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson were artists. Still, some of Kushner’s characters find ways to make beauty in ugly surroundings. They are the authors of their own lives and their own fates and not merely victims of society, injustice and inequities.

“The reality is that most people aren’t falsely accused,” Kushner told the audience at Book Passage. One might put it another way and say that everyone in prison is guilty of something, though not always of the crime they were accused of committing.

Some of the women prisoners in The Mars Room are more likeable than others. The prisoners themselves strongly dislike baby killers and snitches.

Kushner is clearly on the side of the large cast of women characters she has created, and, while she doesn’t idealize them, she suggests that a part of even the most guilty “stays innocent forever.” She also has empathy for prison guards who are, after all, often “poor people without reasonable options.”

If, as George Orwell once famously observed, “All art is propaganda, but not all propaganda is art,” then The Mars Room clearly falls on the side of art.

That means that it offers a kaleidoscopic view of the prison as a penal institution that warps people, but where people also maintain and affirm their humanity, even as they do horrible things to themselves and one another.

It probably sounds like a cliché, but in Kushner’s fictional world, society itself is one big prison and prisons are microcosms of society. Nearly everyone in the book has a number, whether they’re on the inside or the outside and some people on the outside are placed “in the system” before they’re actually incarcerated.

Kushner is an effective storyteller who knows when to provide information, when to hold it in reserve and where and how to dispense it for optimal power. Her book is packed with riffs on subjects like Steve McQueen and Dostoevsky. The Mars Room also provides an underground history of San Francisco and takes a jab at the Central Valley as “a man-made hell on earth” and as the darkest side of the Golden State.

The Mars Room chronicles the relentless war on women, their minds and their bodies, a war that’s waged on the street, in bars, families and strip joints like “The Mars Room,” where men want to “bang box.”

The war on women is what makes this book unique in the history of American prison literature. Slang provides a sense of the real.

Kushner doesn’t let anyone off the hook, not the do-gooders or the bad guys, not the lawyers or the private investigators. Everyone is culpable and everyone plays into the system.

The novel doesn’t have a fictional character like the real-life Angela Davis who has called for the abolition of prisons. To include someone like her, would have skewed the plot and the tone. It also might have turned The Mars Room into a work of propaganda.

In the pages of her novel, Kushner doesn’t get up on a proverbial soapbox. In public and in interviews she’s also careful what she says. She’s not strident, though at Book Passage, for example, she explained that she was a “prison abolitioner,” and a follower of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, social theorist and the author of Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, and other provocative books.

To have brought Foucault’s intellectual legacy to bear on the story of women in prison today in California is a remarkable feat, indeed.

What the prison abolition movement wants, Kushner said at Book Passage, isn’t the immediate release of all men and women from behind bars, but rather “investing in jobs, housing and water and not building new prisons.” She added, “We have to get help to people before they’re committed.”

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