By Rachel Kushner; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
But where Rodion Raskolnikov murders for money, protagonist Romy Hall’s crime is defensive. Poverty; lack of education and poor parenting rob her of opportunities before the murder and the double life-sentence she gets takes away her freedom after.
Kushner begins her novel with Romy being loaded into an L.A. County Sheriff’s bus in the middle of the night wearing handcuffs. The bus’s destination is the Northern California Women’s Facility in Stanville.
Romy is convicted of killing Kurt Kennedy, a former customer of Romy’s at the Mars Room, a low-life strip club in San Francisco. Kennedy evolves from watching Romy work to becoming increasingly possessive to relentlessly stalking her. A restraining order doesn’t help. When she moves to L.A., he follows. When he shows up on the porch of her new home, she smashes him with a crowbar, killing him.
Her elderly public defender is tired and has seen it all; her conviction is a foregone conclusion.
But as Kushner carries Romy’s story backward and forward, it begins to seem that Romy’s entire life was inevitable. Her mother was a glacial “gruff and chain-smoking German woman who gets by on marriage, divorce and remarriage.” Her childhood and teens were spent on the streets with friends seeking thrills in sex, alcohol and drugs.
Eventually she ends up at the Mars Room. No skills are required there, just the ability to “fake nice-nice to the customers.” As Romy describes it, “If you’d showered, you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos weren’t misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the It-girl in the club that night.”
Two life-changing things happen there. She gets pregnant with her son Jackson, which motivates her to get off drugs. And she comes to Kennedy’s attention.
Kushner doesn’t make excuses for Romy, but her book challenges conventions about the criminal justice system. Where the system failed to protect Romy when Kennedy stalked her, it came down forcefully and absolutely in convicting her and sentencing her for Kennedy’s murder. The legal system wasn’t even involved earlier when as an 11-year-old on the street at night Romy asks an older man in a Mercedes for directions and he takes her up to his hotel room.
Her double-life sentence suggests that the system doesn’t recognize rehabilitation. The story highlights the fact that the prison system affects wardens, guards and other prison workers just as it does inmates. Romy’s imprisonment means that her young son goes to her elderly, unwell mother and then eventually is lost in the foster care system, once again potentially dooming a child to a no-win future.
Kushner has a gift for absurd situations and vivid, startling descriptions. On the Sheriff’s bus headed for Stanville, Romy’s fellow passengers include an eight-months pregnant teenager sobbing in the back of the bus. A 300-pound woman silently dies and slides out of her seat during the trip. The woman next to Romy killed her own child. In the middle of a nonstop monologue, she tells Romy, in all seriousness, that she sometimes feels safer locked up with felons “with what all goes on out there.”
At one point, Kushner describes a bride, recently out of rehab, marrying a man she met there: “She looked beautiful, like an arrangement of plastic flowers in a funeral home.” Talking about the Mars Room customers, Romy says, “These men dimmed my glow.”
In the last part of the book, Kushner juxtaposes excerpts from the diaries of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond and Unibomber Ted Kaczynski in his primitive Montana cabin. Except for Kaczynski’s bursts of violence and vandalism, the two are eerily similar.
Ultimately for Romy, there is no way out. The reader feels the claustrophobia with her.
THE MARS ROOM was short-listed for the Booker Prize.