15 September 2018

Orange is not the new black, it's just black.


Author Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner is one of those writers who grab you at once or confound you. Or both. In this, her fourth novel, she grabs you by the shoulders, and then by the throat, and holds you despite, or because of, the subject matter: women in prison.

The novel deals largely with how they got there and how they survive, told in short takes between past and present. Kushner does not gloss over a thing. I suspect the attention to detail is as scrupulous and intense a portrait of prison life as written by an outsider. And, beyond all that, page-turner fiction.

We meet the narrator, Romy, on the overnight journey to prison. She has been sentenced to long sequential terms for the murder of her stalker. She cannot see beyond the end of the tunnel.

They were moving us at that hour for a reason, for many reasons. If they could have shot us to the prison in a capsule, they would have. Anything to shield the regular people from having to look at us…

The title, by the way, refers to a seedy strip club in San Francisco where Romy gave lap dances and where she rose above her coworkers, until she got into trouble.

If you’d showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos weren’t misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night.

Her descriptions of the city by the bay are elegant and detailed, and a harsh contrast to its currently high-tech persona. She has had to leave her son behind with her mother, a ne’er-do-well herself with whom Romy has had a tumultuous relationship, and the shadows of the mother-daughter and the mother-son bond hovers over the story.

Kushner doesn’t ask you to feel sorry for Romy or any of the other memorable characters. Nor does she expect you to them. This is not a victim narrative. She merely tells their stories. You will alternately shield your eyes or, yes, cry for them. More often you may marvel at the atrocities that result from the inequities that pervade American culture, on display and intricately woven through the lives of these prisoners. And their captors.

My only critique is that Romy’s remarkable perception and insight seems the voice of a well-educated erudite person, and does not fit this character. Still, you put that out of your mind in favor of the narrative and the wisdom.

Did you ever notice that women can seem common while men never do? You won’t ever hear anyone describe a man’s appearance as common. The common man means the average man, a typical man, a decent hardworking person of modest dreams and resources. A woman who looks cheap doesn’t have to be respected, and so she has a cheap value, a certain cheap value.

This is prison, beyond cliché or reality television. About inmates, and also the bystanders, the opportunists, in and out of prison, and those who might offer redemption. Like a Russian novel with all its drama and passions. A very good read.