I first sat down to read Rachel Kushner’s novel The Mars Room with a furrowed brow. “How’s this going to go?” I girded myself for the story of a woman sentenced to life in prison, told by a woman who has not been incarcerated. Prison looms large in both the literary and the American imagination, and I’ve heard the fantasies and fears of incarceration from more “outside people” than I can count.
I quickly found myself muttering, “How did she do that?” A depiction of the first long and agonizing transport ride to prison was spot-on, revealing a scene and an interior world that Rachel has not experienced. Again and again she captures the negotiations with a social setting, a brutal system and most of all the self that every prisoner must make. The unique plight of incarcerated mothers is central to The Mars Room. As a nonfiction writer I am constantly trying to coax the facts into a story; Rachel has that special ability of the best fiction writers to invent a story that is undeniably true.
Upon meeting Rachel, I learned that she’s been volunteering in prisons and advocating for incarcerated people for years. Her commitments are deep and personal, and center the lives of people who have had to survive at the margins. She’s been crafty and persistent in her pursuit of the truth about California’s sprawling carceral state.
My favorite books are those that leave me flat on my back and gasping for air as I look at the ceiling, momentarily unable to read further because of what has been revealed to me by the characters. The Mars Room had that effect on me, joining books like Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and Mitch Jackson’s The Residue Years. Rachel clearly does her research rigorously, but it’s the leaps of imagination, aided by a parachute of empathy, that make her writing both truthful and unforgettably painful. I love that.
One of the reasons such wrenchingly difficult material works is because of Rachel’s humor. In prison, to be funny is a very high value, a way to find and keep friends and allies, a lifesaving skill to fight off isolation. All this is to say, what an astonishing and accomplished writer. My father, who reads more than anyone I know and is a trustworthy connoisseur of fiction, paid Rachel the highest compliment by swiping my copy of her book.