The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner presents not just a bold and unsentimental panorama of life on the margins of contemporary America, but an excoriating attack on the prison-industrial complex. Read an extract from her Man Booker Prize 2018 Shortlisted book, The Mars Room, below.



Chain Night happens once a week on Thursdays. Once a week the defining moment for sixty women takes place. For some of the sixty, that defining moment happens over and over. For them it is routine. For me it happened only once. I was woken at two a.m. and shackled and counted, Romy Leslie Hall, inmate W314159, and lined up with the others for an all-night ride up the valley.

As our bus exited the jail perimeter, I glued myself to the mesh-reinforced window to try to see the world. There wasn’t much to look at. Underpasses and on-ramps, dark, deserted boulevards. No one was on the street. We were passing through a moment in the night so remote that traffic lights had ceased to go from green to red and merely blinked a constant yellow. Another car came alongside. It had no lights. It surged past the bus, a dark thing with demonic energy. There was a girl on my unit in county who got life for nothing but driving. She wasn’t the shooter, she would tell anyone who’d listen. She wasn’t the shooter. All she did was drive the car. That was it. They’d used license plate reader technology. They had it on video surveillance. What they had was an image of the car, at night, moving along a street, first with lights on, then with lights off. If the driver cuts the lights, that is premeditation. If the driver cuts the lights, it’s murder.

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, a crew of cuffed and chained women on a sheriff’s department bus.

Some of the younger ones were whimpering and sniffling as we pulled onto the highway. There was a girl in a cage who looked about eight months pregnant, her belly so large they had to get an extra length of waist chain to shackle her hands to her sides. She hiccupped and shook, her face a mess of tears. They had her in the cage on account of her age, to protect her from the rest of us. She was fifteen.

A woman up ahead turned toward the crying girl in the cage and hissed like she was spraying ant killer. When that didn’t work she yelled.

“Shut the hell up!”

“Dang,” the person across from me said. I’m from San Francisco and a trans to me is nothing new, but this person truly looked like a man. Shoulders as broad as the aisle, and a jawline beard. I assumed she was from the daddy tank at county, where

they put the butches. This was Conan, who later I got to know.

“Dang, I mean, it’s a kid. Let her cry.”

The woman told Conan to shut up and then they were arguing and the cops intervened. Certain women in jail and prison make rules for everyone else, and the woman insisting on quiet was one of those. If you follow their rules, they make more rules. You have to fight people or you end up with nothing.


test 2


I had learned already not to cry. Two years earlier, when I was arrested, I cried uncontrollably. My life was over and I knew it was over. It was my first night in jail and I kept hoping the dreamlike state of my situation would break, that I would wake up from it. I kept on not waking up into anything different from a piss-smelling mattress and slamming doors, shouting lunatics and alarms. The girl in the cell with me, who was not a lunatic, shook me roughly to get my attention. I looked up. She turned around and lifted her jail shirt to show me her low back tattoo, her tramp stamp. It said


Shut the Fuck Up


It worked on me. I stopped crying.

It was a gentle moment with my cellmate in county. She wanted to help me. It’s not everyone who can shut the fuck up, and although I tried I was not my cellmate, who I later considered a kind of saint. Not for the tattoo but the loyalty to the mandate.

The cops had put me with another white woman on the bus. My seatmate had long limp and shiny brown hair and a big creepy smile like she was advertising for tooth whitener. Few in jail and prison have white teeth, and neither did she, but she had that grand and inappropriate grin. I didn’t like it. It made her seem like she had undergone partial brain removal surgery. She offered her full name, Laura Lipp, and said she was being transferred from Chino up to Stanville, as if we each had nothing to hide. Since then, no one has ever introduced themselves to me by full name, or attempted to give any believable-seeming account of who they are on a first introduction, and no one would, and I don’t, either.

“Lipp double p is my stepfather’s name, which I took later,” she said as if I’d inquired. As if such a thing could matter to me,

then or ever.



“My father-father was a Culpepper. That’s the Culpeppers of Apple Valley, not Victorville. There’s a Culpepper’s shoe repair,

see, in Victorville, but there’s no relation.”

No one is supposed to talk on the bus. This rule did not stop her.

“My family goes back three generations in Apple Valley. Which sounds like a wonderful place, doesn’t it? You can practically smell the apple blossoms and hear the honeybees and it makes you think about fresh apple cider and warm apple pie. The autumn decorations they start putting up every July at Craft Cubby, bright leaves and plastic pumpkins: it is mostly the baking and preparing of meth that is traditional in Apple Valley. Not in my family. Don’t want to give you the wrong impression. The Culpeppers are useful people. My father owned his own construction business. Not like the family I married into, who— Oh! Oh look! It’s Magic Mountain!”

We were passing the white arcs of a roller coaster on the far side of the big multi-lane freeway. When I’d moved to Los Angeles three years earlier, that amusement park had seemed like the gateway to my new life. It was the first big vision off the freeway hurtling south, bright and ugly and exciting, but that no longer mattered.

“There was a lady on my unit who stole children at Magic Mountain,” Laura Lipp said, “she and her sicko husband.”

She had a way of flipping her shiny sheet of hair without using her arms, as if the hair were attached to the rest of her by

an electrical current. “She told me how they did it. People trusted her and her husband because they were old. You know, sweet gentle elderly people, and a mother might have children running in three directions and go off to chase one and the old lady—I bunked with her at CIW and she told me the whole story—she would be sitting there knitting and offer to keep an eye on the child.

As soon as the parent was out of sight, this child was escorted to a bathroom with a knife under his chin. This old lady and her husband had a system worked out. The kid was fitted with a wig, different clothes, and then that sneaky old couple muscled

the poor thing out of the park.”

“That’s horrible,” I said, and tried to lean away from her as best I could in my chains.

I have a child of my own, Jackson.

I love my son but it’s hard for me to think about him. I try not to.

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