Rachel Kushner’s new novel, “The Mars Room” is set in The Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in Central Valley, California, the prison made famous by the Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black”.
An excerpt entitled “Stanville” (New Yorker, February 12 issue) gives a glimpse into the novel’s heart: the imprisoned are human beings, social beings, who don’t need to be saved, but to be recognized as ordinary people, stowed away in the darkest belly of the United States by design.
Prison acquires a metaphysical connotation in the story by being referred to as the “caged” world. The world outside is the “free” world.
The main character in “Stanville” is Gordon Hauser, a graduate school dropout, an obvious liberal, who believes that he can save the inmates from themselves by teaching them how to read, write and think critically. He thinks “If his students could learn to think well, to enjoy reading books, some part of them would be uncaged.” In other words, Gordon is blinded by his liberal view to the fact that encagement is a structural problem, not a moral one. Teaching the classics won’t help, really.
The story perhaps looks askance at a practice that’s gained popularity in recent years: spreading enlightenment among prisoners so they can be “better” people.
As is evinced by the story and by thoughts expressed by Kushner on the prison system in America, ( in an interview to the New Yorker), the inmates are people already, if not always good specimens of humanity. Crime is not a byproduct of poor choices made by weak character that can be transformed by enlightenment. As Kushner says in her interview:
If crime were a matter of character, then I could say ‘it’s my character that keeps me out of prison. But that would be a lie.
I’m curious to know what gets people into prison according to Rachel Kushner. I’m thinking that “The Mars Room” holds a key to her insight.