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Drift: A review of The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

By Katie Da Cunha Lewin.

Review of The Mars Room

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape, 2018)

Rachel Kushner published her first novel Telex from Cuba only 10 years ago. In the years since, Kushner has garnered an impressive reputation in America literature through her penetrating prose that does not so much as search for subjects of scrutiny but scrutinises everything it contains. Kushner’s fiction is admirably capacious and speaks of a writer with ambitions not only of her own but also about and around the scope of fiction itself. In the introduction to her novella The Strange Case of Rachel K, published in 2015, she articulates this desire:

One day ten years ago I sat down and for approximately twenty hours read an enormous book on the history of so-called civilization, a work of seductive details… and an Occidental outlook, critical of every religion and ideology except the dogma of progress itself… I wanted to run alongside, but with my own version of discovery and progress.

In charting other kinds of “discovery and progress”, Kushner, thus far, has sought to document and research wide-ranging historical and cultural phenomenon, placing individuals at the intersection of public and private, in what fellow American novelist Don DeLillo might call “viscid history”. In fact, DeLillo’s conception of history may indeed be in the back of Kushner’s mind, as the writer has often noted the influence that the literary giant has been on her work. DeLillo’s novel Underworld posits another kind of history or progress, but a decidedly subterranean one, through the tracing of a notable cultural object – the ball that won the 1951 baseball match between the Dodgers and the Giants – and its journey through multiple lives. In her introduction to Picador Classic’s 2015 edition, Kushner remarks that Underworld is “about […] what was experienced in the United States in the second half of the 20th century”. In charting these experiences, DeLillo “restores luminous pockets of lost life”, through his weaving of intersecting narratives of American figures both great and small. The opening line of the novel, oft-repeated in DeLillo criticism but still extraordinarily powerful and apposite 20 years later, speaks to this desire to read life in amongst wider swathes of history: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eyes that’s halfway hopeful.” But whose voice? That small clause of “American” is a strangely empty modifier; its possible topic is the central complexity at the heart of DeLillo’s book.

These “luminous pockets” that Kushner so admires in DeLillo are to be found in Kushner’s new novel, The Mars Room, in spades.  It opens with the journey of a woman to prison: Romy, a former stripper, violently murdered her stalker and is now serving two life sentences. For the first 46 pages, the narrative is purely first person: Romy describes the prison and her previous lives in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In a recent talk about the book at the London Review Bookshop, Kushner explained that in prison, one loses all the demarcations of self that aid navigation in the outside world, those details that prompt recognition. In prison, she explains, all you have is your “personality”. This “personality” is found in talk. If DeLillo’s ambiguous American voice looks for its place through roving across the multitudinous American landscape in Underworld, then in The Mars Room, Kushner looks to place her voice in two confined spaces, the strip club and the prison, contrasting various forms of solitude, through circumstance, through choice or as a mode of self-protection. Though the novel itself is made of voices, they are solitary – the perspectives from which they write are uniquely alone. 

However, though Romy may begin the text, she becomes increasingly interrupted by other characters who describe themselves and their lives. These interruptions arrive in each chapter, which starts anew, or returns to one of its cast of voices, so that as the novel builds, there is a slow accumulation of voices and possible voices occupying the text. These voices are not in conversation with one another, and do not attempt to get at some core truth – no one is really hiding in this text, in fact it is quite the opposite: characters describe themselves and their lives with frankness. Things are the way they are. Then there are other kinds of chapters – an authoritative voice in a list of instructions about the rules of a prison visiting room, or a list of occupations given by inmates. Or indeed, the diaries of Ted Kaczynski punctuate with barely constrained fury, a counterpoint to another character’s more sedate musings on confinement in a remote cabin.

But, Kushner also seems to hint towards here, this personality is also a way of thinking about “personhood”. This is not a novel intent on humanising its subject: it presumes that we know enough not to need this, that we do not need reassurance in our good intentions to read a novel about prisons. Instead, in severing Romy and her prison mates from the worlds they know, Kushner explores a form of endurance that is self-created, constantly remade in talk, rumour and reputation. It is clear that Kushner is sympathetic to the vulnerable and disenfranchised who populate prisons and endure the increasing constraints and indignities of mass incarceration. Many of the individuals who end up in Stanville or the men’s prison also depicted in the book are victims of sexual abuse from childhood. These details are given unashamedly by characters, who seem to regard them as par for the course. However, all these characters are here because of the crimes they have committed; again in her talk at the London Review Bookshop, Kushner reminds the audience that many prisoners are indeed in prison not because of a “three strikes and you’re out” system, or because of racial inequality – though of course these cannot help but be part of the conversation – but because they have committed extreme crimes. A young girl, who gives birth in prison and could be ripe for sympathy, is revealed to have beaten a young Chinese student to death, for example. Rather than dealing with these events with squeamish, liberal guilt, to rally against the inequality of the American justice system, the novel instead asks readers if we can expand our sympathy to individuals who have committed truly horrible crimes. All humans are capable of violence, Kushner seems to suggest, but some are more forcefully lead to violence than others. And acts of violence do not eradicate the personhood from the person.

In these multiple characters, we find Kushner’s primary interest. The narrative is produced through voice, roving through the characters that populate the novel. Kushner contrasts writing in ‘I’ with writing using free indirect discourse and writing in dialogue; as the novel goes on, the reader realises that women characters are in the first person and men – expect for Kaczynski – are in third. The voices, regardless of their tense, however, do not promise proximity or a knowledge: they simply speak. Kushner is interested in the way that literature is produced through voice and talk, in cadence and inflection. What does it mean to write in polyphony? To sit voices next to each other? How flexible, how capacious, is free indirect discourse?  No one makes any promises that voices actually tell anything – voices are made. As Kaczynski’s diaries read, “I don’t pretend to have any kind of philosophical or moral justification,” another character suggests: “I can only know myself, if I can know anyone. I can only judge me.” No one insists on the legibility of their personhood, they are already people. Moreover, in avoiding the promise of linearity, Kushner sidesteps issues of either blame or redemption. We cannot be consoled by what was never there – this makes this not merely a text of voice but of the value of speaking. Kushner has noted in several interviews the problem that voice and of authority poses for her, noting to The Paris Review that in The Flamethrowers, “I had been looking to find a first person who came across like thought, who could be drowned out and overrun in the way that we as people can be overrun by others.” In this novel, Kushner seems to have pushed this further; though there is a narrator, Kushner’s attention is in the promise of evoking thought and process, blending first and third person so that there is no central unifying position through which the text is produced. In situating these characters away from what they know, by isolating them, Kushner’s voices are unmoored. This unmooring is to destabilise the process of an omniscient narrator laying out characters to be read and to be known: in her words, she values “[n]ot being able to read other people. Naiveté and ignorance are valid narrative modes”.

This movement is also reflected in the landscapes of the novel itself. For a writer so concerned with voice, it is interesting to note how often the landscapes she writes are empty. Not only empty, but actually un-peopled, removed of people altogether. Like Thoreau, one of the central influences and a presence in this text, Kushner in some ways becomes like a land surveyor – or better yet a camera. Kushner has an eye for the cinematic: she traces landscapes and places, situating her work in specific geography and mapping not only physical movement through these places, but memory. Her San Francisco and Los Angeles possess no glamour; instead Romy narrates her cities, of bus-stops, back alleys and low-income housing. This is San Fransciso pre-hyper-gentrification – something that the narrator herself acknowledges in the text. In Romy’s recollections of the spaces she has been in, she notes that over San Francisco is “a city where the layers of my history all compressed together on a single plane”. The prison also takes on a shape as Romy makes her way through confinement, administrative segregation and general population. This mapping is absolutely characteristic of Kushner’s other fiction, found in her depiction of Cuba in her first novel, and New York and Italy in 2014’s The Flamethrowers. Her work situates characters in places and in environments as a means tracing how people are shaped; that is, if we can find a way of reading that process. 

Kushner reminds readers that the United States takes advantage of its enormous prison population as a ready-made work force. In the woodshop of the general population, prisoners make “Judges’ benches, Jury box seatings. Courtroom gates. Witness stands. Lecterns. Judges’ gavels. Paneling for judges’ quarters.” On death row they sew “sandbags […] Nothing else…They are not completed. They still have to be filled.” In these unfinished objects, Romy wonders, “Who completes the bag? My guess is men. Men fill it with sand and close up the top”. Prisoners seem to require an occupation, in which they are transported back to pre-industrial methods of producing: sewing and carpentry. Romy is told that she should get a prison job as soon as possible, to “fill up your schedule”. In this Kushner reminds us of the etymology of the word “occupation” from the Latin occupationem, “a taking possession”; a way of taking ownership of time measured for many in prisons not in terms of days and weeks, but months and years. The sad irony being, that though these manual skills provide apparent ‘training’ in preparation for a return to the outside world, in Romy’s case, all she can do is mark time; her consecutive life sentences promise no future.

In this question of time and of keeping time, we can also find influence of James Benning. Kushner attributes the presence of cabins through the ‘Two Cabins’ project of the artist and filmmaker in which he sought to remake to exact proportions the cabins of Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski – even writing to Kaczynski to get the precise dimensions. But, also like Kushner, Benning has depicted the Central Valley and its unique landscape in his film El Valley Centro. In this film his stilled camera moves through the valley, contrasting nature and industry. More generally, Benning’s focus on composition is reminiscent of the camera-eye that is so central to Kushner’s fiction. His famous course ‘Looking’ encouraged students to go to surrounding land in California and spend hours sitting and looking at their surroundings as a way to enhance their attentiveness. However, this attentiveness, Kushner seems to suggest, is not a wholly natural way of being. The last few pages of the novel are extraordinary in their hallucinogenic depiction of a state of supreme watchfulness. As Romy moves through the farmland of the Central Valley, she only wears the clothes on her back – she is further stripped of everything she knows about herself, simply moving. The lessons of looking we can feel from Benning also emerge as another lesson of listening – from her confinement she emerges almost vibrating with receptivity, listening to the hum of bees inside of a tree: “The trees sound was silent, so the bees spoke for it. Their sound was its sound, the one it had me hear.” She mistakes a woodpecker for a drill. And the deep humming of the bees reminds us of the flat sound of machines at a distance. There is no encumbered nature; nature is tainted with the sound of production. We may long to be attentive to nature, but what does this attentiveness entail? Can we confront the transformed landscape in which we want this attentiveness to take place?

In these final scenes, I was also reminded of Barbara Loden’s Wanda, whose unmoored protagonist moves from decision to decision, drifting in the Coal Region of North-eastern Pennsylvania. Loden’s remarkable work, lauded as a true work of feminist cinema, contains a protagonist who is in many ways Romy’s opposite: she does not talk, and in fact often declines to narrativise her own experience. But she has a central frankness – as Elena Gorfinkel describes, she “refuses symptomatology, and the certitude of psychological causality” – that neither allows for, nor encourages blame. Like Romy, she can provide no account for herself because a singular account is not possible. Instead, in both cases, we see women learning to cope with hostility from moment to moment, drifting. 

Much has been made and written in recent years about autofiction and memoir. Rachel Cusk, at an event in London for The White Review, asserted that fiction must write from the position of a subject, particularly fiction written by women. For Kushner, an individual subject does not produce literature. Instead, the composition of literature itself must become the subject. In weaving together multiple perspectives, she encodes a kind of scrutiny that is composed, stilled and fashioned through an attentiveness which necessarily produces something after the fact. The progress that Kushner describes above is one in which the very concept of progress is met with ambivalence; to progress through a narrative, to progress through a life, to progress from day to day, is to meet with forces that cannot be reckoned with in the form of good talk, sensitive listening or more penetrative seeing. It is, returning to DeLillo’s formulation of history, something viscous, like, as Kushner describes, the “dripping washes of black sap” inside of a huge redwood tree.


Katie Lewin

Katie Da Cunha Lewin is a researcher based in London. She has a PhD in literature, focussing on the novels of J.M. Coetzee and Don DeLillo. She is the co-editor of Don DeLillo: Contemporary Critical Perspectives published by Bloomsbury. Follow @kblergg

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 31st, 2018.