Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - 36

WORTH READING

A PORTRAIT OF PRISON LIFE
Review by Ronald Goldfarb

T

he difference between fiction
and nonfiction is intriguing.
Occasionally, I read nonfiction and
marvel at how literary it is, the writing
so artful, much like what a reader
expects in a novel. In The Mars Room,
Rachel Kushner accomplishes the
opposite in her novel about women
prisoners, who they are, how they got
there, and what we in society sanction
once they are there. Kushner puts
readers in one imaginary prison,
describing accurately the noise, reeks,
and anti-social behavior by inmates
and their guards. It is a depressing
picture, but her "story" is an effective
way for the public, those who would
not read a nonfiction exposé
or an academic critique, to learn the
sins of our system.

Plot is not what I'll report here. Pathetic truths about
the prison system is the point. Kushner's cast of
characters are all desperate, sad life's losers for
whom readers can only feel remorse. "I don't plan
on living a long life. Or a short life, necessarily. I have
no plans at all . . . But not having plans doesn't mean
I don't have regrets," our central character says. She
gets no "tender regard," Kushner writes. She has a
realistic sense of her fate: "you can't lose everything
in prison, since that's already taken place." But they
do lose their last semblance of humanity, their
contact with this world, their autonomy, their future.
Most of the women in Kushner's fictional, but very
real prison "are people who grew up in the cities,
the nihilism, the inability to go to college or join the
straight world, get a regular job or believe in the
future." Invariably they are "poor people with
chaotic lives." There is only an ironic relief. "Life has
order if you know how to do time."
In Kushner's joint, the inmates end up caged in
prisons "wrapped in razor wire," where "you got to
live your destiny every minute." That destiny is
boredom, abuse, violence, and frustration, controlled by institution-designed rules having nothing
to do with their clientele's well-being or "correction,"
administered by guards who are "losers at the rock
bottom of law enforcement." The inmates live by
"self-enforced convict codes" - ingenious, cruel,
remorseful, and bleak. They have done the unforgiveable because of the unbearable lives they were
born into. So, they become a forgotten number, not
a human being in this prison society, living in a
world "you can't look up online or in any book."
*

*

*

Come back to my point about fiction and nonfiction. Many years ago, the Ford Foundation funded
my examination of prisons here and around the
world. I reported my findings in a book, After
Conviction. Today, I am awed that Rachel Kushner
could so profoundly describe the world I saw in a
dramatic story, a novel that captures truth.

Ronald Goldfarb is an attorney, author, and literary
agent in Washington, D.C. Read more of his work at
ronaldgoldfarb.com.

Book cover, courtesy of Scribner

36 WASHINGTON LAWYER

*

NOVEMBER 2018

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http://www.ronaldgoldfarb.com http://www.dcbar.org

Washington Lawyer - November 2018

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Washington Lawyer - November 2018

Washington Lawyer - November 2018
Contents
Digital Extras
Your Voice
From Our President
Career & Professional Development
Calendar
Government & Gavel
Smart Cities: The Future of Living
I, Lawyer? Ai & the Law
Cybersecurity: Preparing for the Inevitable
Member Spotlight
Global & Domestic Outlook
Worth Reading
Media Bytes
Attorney Briefs
Ask the Ethics Experts
Disciplinary Summaries
Community & Connections
Last Word
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Washington Lawyer - November 2018
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Cover2
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - 1
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Contents
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - 3
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Digital Extras
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Your Voice
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - From Our President
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - 7
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Career & Professional Development
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - 9
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Calendar
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - 11
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Government & Gavel
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - 13
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - 14
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - 15
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Smart Cities: The Future of Living
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Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - I, Lawyer? Ai & the Law
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Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Cybersecurity: Preparing for the Inevitable
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Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Member Spotlight
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - 33
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Global & Domestic Outlook
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - 35
Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Worth Reading
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Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Media Bytes
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Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Attorney Briefs
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Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Ask the Ethics Experts
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Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Disciplinary Summaries
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Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Community & Connections
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Washington Lawyer - November 2018 - Last Word
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