This is probably the angriest book I’ve read all year. The Mars Room is not just an indictment of the American prison system, but an exploration of how society itself fails many of those who get caught up in that system.
Romy Hall, a dancer at the infamous stripper joint ‘The Mars Room’ ends up in a high security Californian ‘Correctional Institution,’ having murdered the man who stalked her. At the same time she discovers that her mother – sole guardian of Romy’s little boy Jackson – has died, and that her own parental rights have been revoked. With no say in the matter, Romy is left estranged from her own child; unable to trace him from prison.
Part furious satire, part invective, Kushner’s novel exposes the farce of a system which leaves the most vulnerable in a position where they will almost inevitably end up behind bars. It is a system characterised by institutional violence. People like Romy – or her cell mate Button Sanchez – are victims of the conditions it creates; punished hypocritically by a society which refuses to examine the way it fails so many of its own citizens.
“The word violence,” narrates Romy, “was depleted and generic from overuse and yet it still had power, still meant something, but multiple things. There were stark acts of it: beating a person to death. And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools. There were large-scale acts of it, the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in a single year, for a specious war of lies and bungling, a war that might have no end, but according to prosecutors, the real monsters were teenagers like Button Sanchez.” (Kindle Loc 3292)
The Mars Room prises apart the myth of a judicial system aimed at rehabilitating prisoners. Such people are thrown into a cycle of violence and counter-violence from birth; the scapegoats of a society which refuses to examine itself and its own crimes.
A hard read, but an essential one.
All too often, what passes for satire in novels is just cynicism dressed up for a few cheap laughs. It doesn’t really do what satire ought to do which is to take the reader way, way out of their comfort zone. Satire emerges as a mere excuse to poke fun at passing fads: at here today, gone tomorrow political fallout, at easy targets. In fact, as many comedians have recently observed, the task of creating satire is done for them by people like Donald Trump. Why write comedy when the next candidate for POTUS is a walking joke?
But The Sellout is something different altogether. It doesn’t just examine the way systemic racism still informs and props up contemporary American culture. It insists that racism is America and America is racism, and that it always has been. By Beatty’s own admission, that’s a pretty bleak, nihilistic message. But eventually even Me, protagonist of The Sellout admits: ‘sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.’
Me’s fictional ghetto, Dickens, set ‘on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles’ disappears from the map as a result of urban gentrification. Me sets about reinstating Dickens through a process of racial segregation and even slavery, becoming the reluctant owner of Hominy, former star of the racist TV show ‘Little Rascals.’ So ingrained have those stereotypes become that Hominy is now incapable of living without a master, and spends his entire existence assuming the role of a cotton picking, forelock tugging underling whose idea of a birthday treat is being whisked round on a segregated bus.
This is satire which is vicious, angry and does what satire really ought to be doing which is exposing the reader’s moral pretensions. It kind of functions as A Modest Proposal for our times. Jonathan Swift exhorts the eighteenth century British public to eat Irish children – because they’re killing them anyway. In the same way, Beatty waves the stereotypes embedded in our culture under our noses. You want racism? I’ll give you racism. You want to pretend segregation isn’t still a covert aspect of American culture? Let’s bring it out into the open – and see if we can look one another in the eye afterwards. It’s a book which shocks the reader out of all complacency. And that, at the end of the day, is the real purpose of satire.