They are strip-searched, shackled, Tasered and put in cages; their babies are taken away at birth. This is not Margaret Atwood’s Gilead – these women wear blue, not handmaid’s red – but Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California. Proving Atwood’s dictum that all dystopias are “really about now”, Rachel Kushner’s follow-up to her much-praised 2013 novel The Flamethrowers, a high-speed tour through the 1970s Manhattan art scene, is a blistering depiction of mass incarceration in the United States.
We first meet Romy Hall on the bus to Stanville some time in the first decade of this century: she is 29, a single mother, and about to begin two consecutive life sentences for killing her stalker. “I don’t plan on living a long life. Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all,” she tells us. “The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not.”
Like all the characters in this unflinching portrayal of what it means to be poor and female in America, Romy received her life sentence long ago: her mother, addicted to painkillers and divorce, treated her with “silence, irritation, disapproval”; she was raped age 11, and went on to become a drug addict and sex worker. The novel moves backwards and forwards in time, from her childhood – such as it was – on the “fog-banked, treeless and bleak” streets of San Francisco. This is not the city of “rainbow flags or Beat poetry”, but “wet feet and soggy cigarettes at a rainy kegger in the Grove … Being sick from Bacardi 151 and splitting my chin open on a concrete barrier in Minipark.”
The Mars Room of the title refers to the strip club where Romy once worked, where having showered or not being noticeably pregnant gave you “a competitive edge”. The same hierarchies and rules apply in the cells of Stanville as in the club dressing room: mind your own business and never tell anyone your real name. The supporting cast of prisoners bring warmth and humour, in the style of Orange Is the New Black: there’s Betty LaFrance, a former pantyhose leg model, now on death row; Conan, a wisecracking trans woman who makes dildos in woodwork class; giant bully Teardrop, and Laura Lipp, who killed her baby in revenge against her man – “do you know who Medea is?”, she asks.
Kushner, always a diligent researcher, spent time in prisons and displays an impressive knowledge of life inside. We learn that you can send ice-cream sandwiches through the toilets “wrapped in Kotex”; how to smuggle pills on the roof of your mouth with peanut butter; the recipe for ketchup hooch (“you got to double decant it, honey”); and which Danielle Steel novels and reruns of Friends are the most popular.
Two male characters are given their own chapters, told in the third person – this isn’t really their story. There’s a dirty cop, whose history is narrated in a queasily virtuosic feat of ventriloquism taking in child abuse, murder, country music and President Nixon. Then there is Gordon Hauser, a disappointed academic hired to teach literature in the prison, with an interest in Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski (whose diary extracts, rather confusingly, appear) and a fatal weakness for romanticising his pupils.
Kushner’s subject is her country’s fall from grace. This is not the land of the free; no one has choices and everyone is guilty. (Gordon’s thesis is “the fateful concept of the American Adam”.) They are all prisoners of circumstance, from the inmates to the officers (“no guard wanted to work in a women’s prison”). Taken over by agricultural machinery and deserted by people, Kushner’s California is “a man-made hell on earth”, where the water is poisonous and even the air is bad.
The Mars Room recalls another recent American novel, Jesmyn Ward’s prizewinning Sing, Unburied, Sing, an uncompromising portrait of race and poverty in rural Mississippi. In both books we are far away from the lecture theatres, baseball pitches and white-fenced suburbia that typify male American fiction. Like Ward, Kushner brings to centre stage those society would like to make invisible. The women at Stanville are moved in the dead of night – “anything to shield the regular people from having to look at us”. Trapped under the baking Central Valley sky, we catch only glimpses of the external world: a posturing President Bush, footage from the Iraq war, the hanging of Saddam Hussein. Donald Trump was a reality TV star at this point.
The one true innocent in the novel is Romy’s little boy Jackson, “a born optimist”, angelic as a Dickensian orphan. But he is the only sentimental indulgence Kushner allows herself: she makes no attempt to prettify her characters or their ugly lives. Romy is no exception, although her voice – blunted, wounded, smart – is disarmingly confiding.
Plotwise, Kushner boxes herself in so convincingly we are not sure how she is going to make a move: there aren’t many ways out of a life sentence, after all. In subject matter, it would be hard to match the vivacity of The Flamethrowers, but she again displays what James Wood identified in the New Yorker as “uncanny novelistic confidence”. Rich in detail and noisy with voices, The Mars Room is an immersive reading experience, in a tradition of fiction drawing on American social history. Just occasionally it resembles a reporter’s novel, the characters becoming suspiciously sassy mouthpieces.
But Kushner’s prose fizzes as dangerously as the electric fence around Stanville, her observations spiky as barbed wire, her humour desert-sky dark. This may not be an enjoyable novel, but it marks you like a tattoo.
• The Mars Room is published by Jonathan Cape. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian