The Mars Room opens as a young woman, Romy Hall, is being transferred by bus to the fictional Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, somewhere in California. A woman dies on that journey; nobody notices until they get there. Another woman boasts about her string of child abductions. A third just won’t stop chatting.
It is not a cheerful book.
A one-time exotic dancer, Romy’s serving two life sentences for murdering one of her former clients – a man so obsessed with her he followed her to a new city. Interspersed with descriptions of her new reality in America’s inhuman prison system are memories of her past in San Francisco as well as chapters from the point of view of a corrupt cop also serving time and a prison teacher named Gordon.
Gordon is broke. He lives in a one-room cabin in the woods. In this way he is like the Unabomber, apparently: Kushner includes extracts from Kaczynski’s diary by way of making the comparison. And it’s here, not in the meat of Romy’s story, that we find clues about The Mars Room’s project. Although Gordon vaguely thinks he’s doing something charitable by working at the prison (he can’t get a job anywhere else, though), he’s also sort of a terrible person – he too becomes obsessed with Romy, objectifying her and her fellow inmates even as he breaks rules for them. In the end, his own self-image is all he cares about. By including these stories of men who cannot see past their own self-interest (add to Gordon and the Unabomber the cop who kills a young Black man who witnessed his corruption, and Romy’s stalker, who frames his obsession as love), Kushner draws connections between toxic masculinity and a prison system that insists upon the inhumanity of its inmates. Stanville is absolutely impersonal: no allowances are made for grief or illness or common sense. It is the creation of a society that cannot look beyond the self-interest of a privileged few. The structures of toxic masculinity are everywhere: in the abuse inflicted on trans prisoners by inmates and guards alike; in the way that prisoners giving comfort to a woman in labour are wrested violently away by prison staff; in the fact that nobody notices the dead woman on the bus.
No wonder Romy’s future is a dead end: there is no allowance in the system for mercy or flexibility or even the acknowledgement that a wrong decision may have been made somewhere along the line. The moral ambiguity of pretty much everyone in the novel doesn’t change Kushner’s assessment of the system’s brokenness – in fact, it makes it worse. The absolutes the system insists on, that toxic masculinity insists on, that both use the absolute of violence to enforce, are incompatible with complex humanity. And under these conditions, justice is impossible.
I found The Mars Room valuable, if not precisely enjoyable, because of its discussion of a topic I know little about. I don’t know what the prison system here in the UK is like, but I can easily imagine it being similar. And I think it powerfully evokes a sense of entrapment and enclosure: the idea that you are restrained not just physically but ideologically, by circumstance and by the temperament of those around you. In other words, it’s a novel that, despite describing the smallness of life in a single physical prison, reveals how toxic masculinity and patriarchy makes prisons for us all.