Rachel Kushner’s third novel, The Mars Room, operates, in some way, like a backward mystery. The book begins with its protagonist, a former exotic dancer and single mother named Romy Leslie Hall, on a prison bus bound for the Central Valley’s Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, where she is due to serve a pair of consecutive life sentences. As for what she did to get there, those details come later, emerging out of the relentless movement of the narrative. More to the point is the idea that being in prison means always living in the present tense.
Romy is a San Franciscan, raised out in the avenues. The city she describes in The Mars Room is not the one the guidebooks represent. “I sometimes think San Francisco is cursed,” she announces early in the novel. “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.” The key word here is had, the hard insistence of it, the indication that there was never any choice.
Kushner, too, grew up in that part of San Francisco. She understands the way it works. What makes The Mars Room so profound, however, is not just her portrayal of the city as an urban wilderness of predators and feral children, but also her ability to transform the material, to give it resonance beyond itself. Kushner builds her fiction out with vivid details, re-creating Romy’s circumstance with an incisive eye. “They sewed sandbags on death row. Nothing else,” the character reflects from prison. “They had six machines and they sewed bags for flood control.”
Kushner understands that fiction needs a grounding in reality. It needs to take place in, and respond to, a recognizable world. This is the moral imperative of art, and she is a practitioner of capacious talents, as adept at writing about Romy’s longing for her son as about the inequities of incarceration, official or otherwise. What makes Kushner’s work so resonant is her ability to pay attention, to gather information—what, for want of a better term, let us call her eye.•