I have a close friend who used to work in the prison system as an English teacher. A longtime advocate for ending mass incarceration, he spent much of his time with his students discussing prisons as part of a larger oppressive system that disproportionately affects—targets, even—Black and Brown people. As his students discussed their lived experiences, my friend would offer insights he’d developed in an academic context, and usually they would find themselves talking about the same issues in similar ways. Both would agree that power in America seemed to belong to a small, elite group of wealthy white people who seemed to have a personal interest in policing and incarcerating, and more broadly exploiting, people of color. With some regularity, they would describe the same system the same way, but they would give it a different name. He called it systemic racism, or mass incarceration, or capitalism. They called it The Illuminati.
What makes this story poignant is not that my friend’s students were mistaken or confused, but that they were not confused at all. In a society in which power is organized to the benefit of the elite few at the dramatic expense of the many, the coordinates of conspiracy theory and social theory are only superficially distinct. The Illuminati is not the same in name as the system that puts people of color in jail every day, but it is the same in every other respect. Both are governed by double-speak, secret rituals, and all-powerful masters. The administrators of America’s prison system regularly misrepresent events and manipulate legal technicalities to veil and justify gross abuses of the rights of incarcerated people. Examined closely enough, these practices sound more like those of a secretive clique than those of a legitimate political institution; this distinction, too, may be purely superficial.
Sergio De La Pava’s Lost Empress, published last May, is a novel about our justice system that resembles the systems novels of the American counterculture, which imagined vast, transcontinental political conspiracies as metaphors for America’s political system. The novel’s many subplots revolve around a farcical public competition between two children of an ailing football mogul whose son inherits the Dallas Cowboys to the frustration of his sister. Despite her superior business sense and managerial acumen, she ends up inheriting a gimmicky franchise called the Paterson Pork of the Indoor Football League. Similarly goofy stories work their way into the book, but for the most part they serve as washes of light that bring out an otherwise dark landscape in which jobs are brutally taxing to the soul, greed and power commingle in sinister machinations and all but the chosen few are shuttled without detour to the sites of their inevitable disenfranchisement.
The novel’s most memorable subplot follows Nuno DeAngeles, a calculating but short-tempered criminal-by-nurture, imprisoned on Rikers Island, bent on beating the justice system at its own game. Nuno is the perfect hero for a novel about a system as bloated and unwieldy as our prison system: fiercely principled, uncommonly well-read, and armed with a wit that cuts and twists inside the wound. Nuno supplies much of the novel’s humor in the form of sarcastic reversals or tautologies like “In the interest of brevity, I’ll just say that the problem with paying someone a dollar a day to make an item that goes for a thousand times that is that you are paying someone a dollar a day to make an item that goes for a thousand times that.” Unburdened by the illusion that anyone connected to the justice system ever acts toward unselfish ends, Nuno is determined to manipulate these actors to pursue selfish ends of his own—namely, a massive payout from a dicey prison heist. Nuno has enough braggadocio and charisma to carry the novel by himself, but Lost Empress is focused less on its hero than the system that surrounds him, its inherent flaws and contradictions, and the violence and injustice wrought by its dysfunction and obsolescence.
Nuno is introduced with a chapter that begins, “What would education look like if its ultimate goal were incarceration?” In a novel that posits incarceration as part of a larger machine that segments, targets, and processes entire populations long before they ever get to prison, the question is rhetorical (rhetorical questions are another stylistic device that recur in the novel). Later, De La Pava’s narrator offers more bluntly, “One could, for example, don’t laugh, imagine a situation in which ensuing human evolution was such that the need for jails decreased drastically until this jail was closed and the island returned to its agrarian roots even to the point where it became a kind of revenue-generating botanical tourist attraction. That did not happen.” The tongue-in-cheek suggestion here is that this return to the time before jails would be all too appropriate, but the “need for jails” has not decreased because the carceral system needs them, for revenue and for social control. In carceral America, too many people, especially Black and Brown people, are presented with challenges they cannot surmount and then punished for failures they cannot avoid. (Nuno’s challenge ends up being a moral quandary that only violence can resolve.) This progression, from insurmountable challenge to unavoidable failure, from education to incarceration, is a linear progression, like the structure of a traditional novel. The eighty-nine chapters in Lost Empress elapse backward from 88 to Zero. When we first meet Nuno, he is incarcerated. By the end, he is free. The novel that ends with Nuno’s incarceration is simply society itself. With Lost Empress, De La Pava does what both postmodernism and decarceration have always aimed to do: reverse the narrative.
The process by which Nuno seeks freedom from Rikers accounts for much of the structural complexity of De La Pava’s novel. Systems novels are often lauded for their breadth of research and mastery of specialist vernacular. De La Pava happens to work by day as a public defender in New York, so the language of the justice system is one he speaks fluently; he already knows that Rikers has a law library where informed and inclined inmates can learn which motion to file to request their mental fitness to proceed in court be evaluated, or to contest a Murder Two charge in the interest of justice. Nuno eventually writes and submits the latter motion when his case is heard at the New York State Supreme Court, and it stands out not just as an example of spot-on institutional ventriloquism but also as some of the most thorough and cogent criticism of mass incarceration in contemporary popular letters:
11. American law enforcement as an entity entire is currently devoid of any legitimizing authority. As an initial matter, your affiant accepts that life is just another word for violent contest. The difficulty is that the vast majority of people are physical cowards. This raises two primary questions: who do we subjugate and, given that cowardice, how?
12. In the country where this motion is being filed, the who has been obvious from the start. Against all sense, melanin was demonized and rather famously enslaved. The tool, essentially, was the legal system, nothing less than the bedrock foundation of society itself.
13. The problem with running that counter to any sense of decency or defensible truth is one of endurance. When slavery was replaced with legalized discrimination this was only slightly better built to last, which takes us to post-Civil Rights Act 1970s. An incarcerated defendant writing this motion then would’ve noted that he was one of about 300,000 people so situated. Today as I write these words I am one of about 2.3 million people currently being incarcerated by the United States of America.
By its end, the motion has advanced a theory of systemic racism in America so deep and nuanced that, to anyone in the novel with the privilege not to be its target, it is too dire to receive without a fragile kneejerk dismissal. Not a page into the following chapter, one of the readers reviewing the motion in the DA’s office is saying “Racism? . . . I’m married to a woman whose cousin is married to a black,” as if racism could be solved with a wedding or two.
The motion is not honored. Eventually, Nuno is relegated to solitary confinement without just cause, falls into a catatonia that may or may not be real, leaves Rikers for mental treatment at Bellevue Hospital, returns to Rikers and successfully argues for his release, and then breaks out before his release date because a physics instructor convinces him that, before that date comes, the world will end. “Time had a beginning with the Big Bang and like all things with a beginning it will have an end,” he says. “It is slowing as we speak and it is slowing the way your great-grandfather is slowing, with the same ultimate result.” Comparing the action of the novel and the forces it examines to physical principles like the laws of thermodynamics, according to which the usable energy available to a natural system always gradually depletes until the system’s functioning grows more disorderly and uncertain, is an old impulse in this mode of fiction, going back at least to Pynchon’s “Entropy.” If the universe is Nuno’s dying great-grandfather, mass incarceration is the cancer killing him, an irreversible agent of decay. This assessment is sound, but it feels like a tic—more a deduction from an older postmodern mode, than a serious attempt to come to terms with the contemporary system. Mass incarceration is out of control, but not just on the level of statistics. We already have novels that map structural oppression across space and time, but these novels tell us little about the lived experience of oppression.
Favoring rhetorical grandiosity, Lost Empress pays little attention to the social behavior of prisoners, conspiratorial or coercive arrangements between inmates and COs, or neglect of the kind that can lead to death. There is also little representation of the totally unlivable conditions reported by Rikers inmates, like unbearably hot or cold temperatures, the near ubiquitous use of force in disciplinary measures, or the “prison slavery” of negligible working wages that has now emerged as a platform for mass action in prisons across the country. Nuno is too tough and wise to fear violence or extortion, which gets De La Pava out of the responsibility of relating the experience of someone who fears violence or extortion, which is probably the more typical experience of incarceration. De La Pava may not be interested in the potentially exploitative nature of exploring these facts, but not facing up to them deprives the novel of an essential aspect of the system: what it feels like to those inside it.
What appears in De La Pava’s novel as a mesh of commingling and conflicting public and private interests is mapped onto the psychology of the characters in Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room. In the book’s first chapter, in which protagonist Romy Leslie Hall is transported by bus to the Northern California Women’s Facility, Romy says of the passengers around her, “that was the kind of people I had to be around now. People who thought everything was a scientifical conspiracy. I didn’t meet a single person in county who wasn’t convinced that AIDS had been invented by the government to wipe out gays and addicts. It got difficult to argue with. In a sense it seemed true.” The way Romy describes it, conspiracy theory is a way to cope with prison life, a part of the experience of incarceration, a way to reconcile the maddening enormities of her circumstances. For these characters, the paranoid is as personal as the personal is political. No less indebted than De La Pava to the great postwar novelists of the left, Kushner is more stylistically of a piece with socially-minded writers of the ’80s and ’90s, like Jayne Anne Phillips and Mary Gaitskill, who reacted to the dizzying advancement of global capitalism by zooming in on the minute yet maddening oppressions of daily life. In The Mars Room, we get much more of the incarceration between the lines of De La Pava’s massive narrative.
Unlike Rikers Island, the Central California Women’s Facility of Chowchilla, California, the model for the Northern California Women’s Facility of The Mars Room, despite being the biggest women’s correctional facility in the United States, does not receive much attention from the media. In 2016, after studies into conditions at the prison revealed patterns of rampant violence and sexual abuse in concert with studies of other facilities, the facility’s warden of over thirty years and another warden at another facility resigned at the same time, and this generated some media interest. Besides that, there is not much readily available reporting about life and living conditions at the prison. In researching this review, I was able to quickly pull up other reviews of Kushner’s novel, coverage of the aforementioned events, and a fluffy piece about a new beauty therapy course at the facility. Despite the fact that women are the fastest growing incarcerated population in America, The Mars Room is notably one of few in-depth explorations of the lives of women in prison to emerge in recent years. (Comparison to the Netflix series Orange is the New Black is almost inevitable, which may be why the novel’s dust jacket sets the title in orange neon against a black background.) For this reason, and because Kushner wrote the novel over a period of years spent developing close relationships with incarcerated women as a volunteer with Justice Now, The Mars Room makes a major contribution to prison literature.
The women in the novel are subjected to sexual violence so regularly that it is treated as if it is just another part of their punitive program. For many of them, this sexual violence is not unique to their time in jail. Kushner wisely demonstrates throughout the novel that patriarchy and its parallel oppressive structures are not phenomena specific to incarceration; they groom these characters from birth to feel comfortable in the rigidly authoritative structures of prisons. “I had been a waitress at IHOP right after I graduated high school,” Romy says. “I was waitress 43, and the cooks would call, Forty-three! Your order is up! Which, as I only saw later, had been preparing me for here.” With wrenching flashbacks to Romy’s youth that bare the bruises of innocence forcibly taken, Kushner shows us Romy navigating and bucking authority throughout her life, in her predatory friendships, in her work as a stripper, and in her experiences with men. By the time she ends up in prison, like the rest of the women around her, she hardly has the capacity to question or resist authority.
By tracing the narratives of her characters’ oppression beyond the prison, Kushner makes their lives relevant to ours. When one of Romy’s fellow inmates, a trans man, is written up, Romy ruminates, “Some of the girls laughed and snickered that Conan was getting written up. You’d think we would band together. Even our ragtag crew from the bus, with all sixty of us we could have subdued the two transport cops easily enough, hijacked that vehicle, and gone to Mexico. But there was no cooperation. Just people eager to see others fall under the hammer they suffered under themselves.” The novel reads as if written quickly, as if Romy is using the first words she finds for her thoughts (the word “scientifical,” from the quote above, is a good example), but time spent with the sentences reveals that they double as social theory. Why fight tooth-and-nail for freedom when passively acclimating to covert abuse requires no effort at all?
The Mars Room’s criticism of patriarchal capitalism writ large accretes as Kushner illustrates again and again how men subordinate women, and how women are taught to comply. Before going to jail, Romy works as a stripper at the titular Mars Room, where it is very literally her job to anticipate, accept and satisfy the whims of her male customers. Her bosses and her bouncers at the club are also men, but their job is really to stand back idly while the customers tell the women what to do. One of these customers eventually becomes obsessed with Romy and begins to stalk her, and when she kills him after losing her patience for his constant threats to her sense of safety, no one is willing to hear her side of the story. He is an older disabled veteran, and she chose to be a stripper, and to beat him brutally with a baseball bat. His arbitrarily elevated social status legitimizes his endangering her, and when she reacts in the interest of her own self-preservation, what the justice system sees is her rejection of an authority she is expected to recognize. Punitive justice in Romy’s case is meant to be corrective of this behavioral aberration, a mistake in her conditioning.
The Mars Room offers enough freedom to its characters to allow them to devise and enact alternatives to their lifelong conditioning. Like many of her fellow inmates, who find pen pals outside of prison who will agree to do them favors and smuggle them drugs and even marry them in exchange for some desperately craved attention, Romy slowly grooms her tutor Gordon Hauser until he agrees to help her locate her son, who is left without care after her mother suffers a fatal accident. Systems are not only strictly governed by rules: they are nothing but rules. Relationships, however, are different. In the stark, intimate quiet of an empty, windowless room, with no one around and no interruption from anything going on outside, women like Romy can make men like Gordon do whatever they want.
Thanks to this awareness of the dual nature of the social, The Mars Room not only honors but improves on the systems novel. The book includes enough photorealist explosions of violence and brutality that no reader will forget for a second where its characters live, but there is enough vibration of the human in Kushner’s treatment of these characters to remind every reader that we live in a shared world. We hear the story of Romy’s attack on her stalker at the beginning of the novel and it is immediately clear that patriarchy has forced Romy into committing an act of violence. We hear it again at the end of the novel from the point of view of the man himself, an abysmally socialized ex-military strip club denizen who cannot find the strength to leave Romy alone.
In Lost Empress, Sergio De La Pava presents multiple parallel narratives to illustrate the architecture of mass incarceration and trace its simultaneous movements. Rachel Kushner does the same in The Mars Room, by telling Romy’s story from every perspective available so that the reader understands that there are forces at work larger than Romy, in which everyone around her is complicit. Almost echoing De La Pava’s line about incarceration and education, Romy says toward the end of the novel, “life does not go off the rails because it is the rails, goes where it goes.” This is nothing if not true, in the way of tautologies, but Kushner doesn’t tell her readers this truth up front, like De La Pava’s narrator does. Instead, she watches and describes as her characters’ lives go where they go, until they can put the truth in their own words.