I have a crush on Rachel Kushner — everything about her. I was initially turned on by her debut novel “The Flamethrowers,” a smart and stylish sojourn from the dirty art hoes of 1970s Soho to the political underground of Italy, complete with glamorous touches of DMT churches, performance art and street violence. Swoon.
“The Flamethrowers” is so vivid, so bitingly electric and feminist-without-the-word that I got curious about the woman behind the pen and slipped into a forty minute biographical research bender. Rachel Kushner is a San Francisco native, the certain spawn of beatnik scientists that lands a gig at a feminist bookstore at the ripe age of five, does the Berkeley thing and bools around the SF nightclub scene on her Moto Guzzi before casually saucing over to Columbia for her MFA. In author imagery, she often appears in front of cars, behind Wayfarers and/or clad in leather. She’s got three critically acclaimed blockbuster novels, a Guggenheim, an honorary PhD from Kalamazoo and now a spot on the Man Booker shortlist with her latest book, “The Mars Room.” I repeat: swoon.
“The Mars Room” reads much like “The Flamethrowers” in its grunge-glamor. Our femme fatale, Romy Hall, grew up hard and fast in San Francisco, getting into catfights and PCP on the weekends before working at The Mars Room, a low-fi but high-cred strip club in the gritty Tenderloin district. It’s not a stereotypically secure gig, but Romy enjoys the power she wields at the club and a steady source of income to support herself and her son. She’s smart, pragmatic and tough (“Every stripper I know is clever. Some are practically geniuses.”), but she doesn’t have the ability to prevent or outrun a customer-turned-stalker, and she really doesn’t have the cultural capital or capital-capital to defend herself at court when an encounter with the creep turns violent. But this is all delivered to us through sporadic flashbacks. The novel opens in the thick of consequence: Romy shackled chattel-style to a prison bus, careening nebulously into two consecutive life sentences in the Central Valley.
“The Mars Room” unfolds like this, unsticking and resticking in time between its present (2003 at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility) and Romy’s shrouded past on the streets of SF. Structurally, this can be unpopular territory: Novels that nix the frameworks of time and place run the risk of bleeding out into disorganized and disorienting masses of detail. Kushner, however, is a seasoned rebel. She manipulates the timeline so deftly that these scenes slide into each other with a dreamlike logic. Romy’s GED prep session at Stanville summons an anecdote of teaching her son to count, a memory that morphs into musing on how counting functions “like prison, from a name to a number.” This brings us back to Stanville where the women on death row are sewing sandbags for “five cents an hour, minus fifty-five percent restitution.”
The narrative is a ride on Romy’s train of thought, a psychological portrait made vivid by its very meandering. Between the hustle for shampoo and tampons, hazy recollections of bad lap dances and dehumanizing treatment from prison guards and public defenders alike, Kushner captures the indefinite restlessness of a mind pinned between past and future, time and place, hope and regret.
That being said, “The Mars Room” sprawls. Those who value plot will be frustrated with the way this one constantly wavers between absent and forced. Those who enjoy form and detail will revel in Kushner’s obsession with it, a highly visual approach to storytelling singular enough to land her on the Man Booker shortlist.