The Mars Room: Sex Work, Stalkers & Unceasing Misogyny

As many of you will already know, the Man Booker Prize Long List has finally been announced, and the line up is looking incredible. I was thrilled to see that The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh is on the list since its my favourite book of 2018 yet and its the first book I’ve ever read, notably loved and raved about before being nominated for a prize. The second book I decided on was The Mars Room, drawn in by yet another beautiful cover from Jonathan Cape, imprint of Vintage Books. I was also intrigued to read this as a take on life in a women’s prison since its always been a topic I’m interested in and I wanted to see how it compared to TV representations like Orange Is The New Black. It didn’t fail to impress me and I’m excited to discuss it in a little more depth, as I had to stop myself from tweeting about various elements off it so I could carry on reading.

The Mars Room, named after the strip club which its main character once worked for, is a novel which follows life in a women’s prison, discussing a variety of institutionalised prejudices from sexism to transphobia. Romy Hall is the protagonist. She is serving multiple life sentences for a crime against a man from her past, leaving her young son, Jackson, in the care of her mother on the other side of the prison walls.

When the narrative is in her hands, discussed from a first person perspective, San Francisco is the main setting of her reminiscence. I found the way the author describes the city fascinating, as well as her constant reflections about the point she as reached in her life and her own self-worth. Romy looks back on the memories of her younger years in San Francisco and the people she has met, including her free-to-be ex boyfriend Jimmy Darling and her drug-fuelled and feisty best-friend, Eva. Its really refreshing to read a book in which the main focus is life in prison, whilst the content is largely set on thought processes rather than action packed crimes being committed one after the other.

‘There was a big public funeral that day for a Hells Angel. She wanted to brag, but she wanted to seem like she was being discreet. She kept talking about what good money she made as a waitress on Pier 39. She said, as if she somehow knew what I did for a living, “I make my money respectably.” Pier 39 is garbage.’

Everything is so deep, everything has meaning in Kushner’s not-so fictional setting and everything she includes has been put there for a reason. (She didn’t tell me that, but I just know, okay.) The thoughts that this book provoked from my own mind the most was its discussion of sex work. Romy’s work as a stripper is constantly brought to the forefront of the novel, and I loved how Kushner presented it. Sex work is work, and women who participate in sex work are still women. I think Kushner captures the debate perfectly with a protagonist who feels shame about The Mars Room and her crime, but also acknowledges the institutionalised misogyny and poverty she has suffered throughout her life and thinks about how that could have contributed to where she is now. Despite the feelings of shame, she needs a job to provide for her son and this is the job she chooses. She earns more money than in any other minimum wage field, and if anything her narrative suggests the immorality of sex work lies with those who buy into. The men who visit The Mars Room are detailed by Kushner to be exactly what we know they are like in real life, often abusive or manipulative, however this aspect of sex work is rarely captured in mainstream media circles. It is always the women performing an art who are under perusal and criticism, not the men who desperately seek it out and spend money funding the industry.

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Kushner’s novel really goes in hard on societal misogyny. She almost exposes every institution and every aspect of life for what it really is- a series of systems and processes which have historically, and still presently, favour men. Romy never explicitly expresses the feeling that her crime was deserved, but I loved that she also never expresses any guilt in her narrative. She regrets having to leave her son and having to go to prison, she regrets meeting the man who is on the receiving end of her crime, but she never once regrets what she did.

‘I regret The Mars Room, and Kennedy, but there are other things you might want me to regret or expect me to that I don’t.’

Whilst this won’t be the same for all women who commit crimes against people who hurt them, I think it stands as a great metaphor for anyone who has been subject to sexism or harassment and has stood up for themselves, whether its by shouting back at someone who cat-called them in the street, or filing a law suit against a manager who is uncomfortably friendly. Women shouldn’t feel shame for what happens to them, and I think Kushner captures this really closely. I particularly like that Romy has a first person narrative, as well as her friend Sammy, whilst the male characters perspectives are given from third person. Its as if Kushner, in this story, believes men have had their say, and now its women who need have their voices heard.

Women are forced to face harassment and poor treatment from men on the regular. We are taught from a very young age that our actions justify the way men can treat us. That our clothing determines how acceptable it is for men to throw slurs our way, and rape us. We need more books from writers like Kushner which identify these issues and talk about them from the point of view of characters like Romy, who finally have a narrative voice with which to discuss how it makes us feel. The more stalker-like, abusive behaviour is normalised and dismissed the more it will prevail and cause the suffering of women who think it is something out of their control. I loved that Kushner addressed this and I look forward to more books in the future that follow her lead.

‘He was looking for Eva. He was distressed. He said he’d spent eighty thousand dollars on her cocaine habit that year and now she was gone. What did he expect? I didn’t question that he loved her, or at least that he knew he’d never get a woman like Eva, that gorgeous and free, without doling out the money, and without her being first and foremost an addict who needed something from him. “Get away from me,” I said, and left him standing at the entrance to the theater.

Henry was his name, the john obsessed with Eva. He started appearing almost everywhere I went, hoping I was on my way to meet Eva and he could trap her. But I hadn’t talked to Eva, didn’t know where she was, and she wasn’t the kind of person you can call on the phone. I had about ten numbers for her and none of them worked. Later, I forgot all about Henry and that episode, because soon I had my own stalker, Kurt Kennedy. Henry wasn’t really my stalker, but Eva’s. He only stalked or shadowed me in order to locate her. Eva disappeared to escape him. When I think of Henry or of Kurt, the tissue of my throat goes hard.’

Another issue which Kushner discusses is transphobia in society and more specifically how it becomes more of a complex issue in the justice and prison systems. She includes two characters who are POC as well as identifying as transgender, a trans man nicknamed Conan who Romy becomes close friends and cell mates with, and a trans woman named Serenity Smith. The inclusion of both and their stories of being put in the prison which matches their biological sexes, as well as the unceasing discrimination they face is a testament to the lives of real trans people, and how their experiences of transphobia in society are not dissimilar to this. At parts it was hard to hear about, particularly the way many of the women in the prison turn on Serenity Smith when she is finally mainlined in a women’s prison, a dream come true considering her struggles through the male prison sector. She is immediately attacked and verbally assaulted, both to her face and in discussions where she is not present. I hated this aspect of the women in the prison, some I had grown to appreciate as characters, and it was a stark reminder of the so-called feminists who are actively defying trans rights in our society today. TERFS (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) are still suggesting that trans women’s rights risk the rights women have fought hard for for centuries, which is obviously tedious and untrue. Transwomen are women, and Kushner makes this statement clear with her novel.

To conclude this very long review, I would like to end by saying how much I really did love this book. I know most of my reviews end in the same way, since I don’t tend to review books I disliked. I think if an author has dedicated years of their life to writing a book that unfortunately doesn’t fit my tastes, the least I can do is throw it on the Do Not Finish pile and forget about it, as long as it isn’t offensive or problematic of course. However, this book has definitely stood out amongst the books I have read this year. The way Kushner writes about women’s experiences was really refreshing. It wasn’t pitiful or sympathetic but more empowering. It made me want to learn more about the ways women can keep improving the situations we are faced with. The Mars Room was excellent!

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