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Sharply Written 'Mars Room' Ventures Behind The Bars Of Women's Prison


This is FRESH AIR. "The Mars Room" is the third novel by Rachel Kushner, whose first two, "Telex From Cuba" and "The Flamethrowers," were both finalists for the National Book Award. The new one tells the story of a young woman incarcerated for murder in a women's prison in California. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says that in this book, orange is definitely not the new black.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Early in Rachel Kushner's novel "The Flamethrowers," its heroine Reno is racing through Utah on her motorcycle when she sees the dancing lights of a casino on the Nevada border. Only a killjoy, she tells us, would claim that neon wasn't beautiful. I feel much the same about the work of Kushner, whose 2005 debut, "Telex From Cuba," about an American family in pre-Castro Cuba heralded a major talent and whose follow-up, "The Flamethrowers," confirmed it. Ranging from the Bonneville Salt Flats to the '70s New York art scene to Italy during an era of domestic political violence, that book had the scope, polish and oomph of a Kubrick film.

Like the filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, Kushner is a woman with the chops, ambition and killer instinct to rub shoulders with all those big, swinging male egos who routinely get worshipped as geniuses. In her new novel "The Mars Room," Kushner trades in "The Flamethrowers'" wooshing expensiveness for a slower, more muted vision of entrapment and isolation. Set in a California women's prison, it focuses on a young mother, Romy Hall, serving two consecutive life sentences for murdering the creep who's been stalking her.

I know this sounds dauntingly grim, but in fact this smart, sharply written, sometimes funny novel sucks you into Romy's world, evoking her reckless past and the claustrophobic present that will also be her future. In quick, vivid strokes, Kushner gives us Romy's run-amok youth in the skeevy parts of San Francisco that locals know are only a few steps away from the picturesque ones imagined by outsiders. Smart but foolhardy, she eventually winds up lap dancing in the Mars Room, the cruddiest strip club in a city crawling with them. She has a fling with the doorman, gives birth to a son and along the way acquires her stalker.

If Romy's past was bad, her prison is worse. Forever cut off from her son, she's trapped in a prison whose workings Kushner knows inside out - from its lice to its bleak, bureaucratic lingo. Overcrowded cells, nasty guards, racial hatreds, electrified fences, we get them all - not to mention a recipe for the disgusting homemade cocktails that prisoners drink to escape. Although Kushner stirs up a few more nuggets of research than strictly necessary, they're never dull for Romy he has a way with words. When you see lights even higher than stadium lights, she says, you are at prison. Now, Kushner is not an avid plumber of psychological debts. Attuned to artifice and suggestive surfaces, she's closer in spirit to Don DeLillo's metallic cool than Dostoyevsky's fevered emotionalism.

"The Mars Room" hopscotches in time and expands outward. Even as we come to know the female prisoners in Romy's orbit - the child killer who won't shut up, the trans woman who has no allies - we meet two men whose tales cast light on Romy's situation. One is an LA cop convicted of murder - the other a floundering academic who teaches at Romy's prison and tends to fall for his students. Kushner further reframes the context with riffs on country music, Thoreau and the Unabomber though I'm not sure those two self-isolating men really add much to the book.

While it would be wrong to call "The Mars Room" an old-fashioned protest novel, it is, like her first two books, political. Lucid but not hectoring, it reminds us that most prisoners' fates have been sealed by poverty and the cruel machinery of a prison industrial complex that incentivizes locking people up without caring what happens to them. One searingly intelligent passage shows the links between low-paying jobs and the prison-made shoes sold at Walmart.

Kushner is particularly pointed about the social forces that produce female prisoners - a staggering percentage of whom are poor and have been victims of abuse. "The Mars Room" takes its title from the club where Romy worked - what she describes as a loveless marketplace whose workers hide their true identities, have relationships that are purely transactional and are only doing what it takes to survive. In all these ways, Kushner makes clear the bar is like Romy's prison. But I think she's suggesting something bigger and more devastating than that. For millions and millions of people - especially women - "The Mar's Room" is America itself.

GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and He reviewed "The Mars Room" by Rachel Kushner. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guests will be filmmakers, actors and brothers Jay and Mark Duplass. They became known for making movies fast and cheap and went on to create the HBO series "Togetherness," which Mark costarred in. Jay costars as Josh in "Transparent." Their new memoir is about making movies and the rewards and traps of being in such a close collaborative relationship. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "HARLEM BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.