It’s hard for bookish people not to romanticize the act of reading—as a spur to imagination and compassion for others or just an escape from whatever real-life trap you may find yourself in. If only the incarcerated women he’s been sent to prep for the GED, Gordon Hauser tells himself in Rachel Kushner’s new novel THE MARS ROOM (Scribner, $27), “could learn to think well, to enjoy reading books, some part of them would be uncaged.” Sadly, his own extensive reading does not appear to have produced any such result: he tends to make the same mistakes over and over, such as picking out an inmate to gormlessly crush on, deciding that she “did not know to use her beauty to manipulate, didn’t even know she was beautiful.” (Let’s suppose for a moment that there exists any space through which a grown woman can move without noticing what she looks like and what effect that has. You can bet that prison isn’t it.)
In any case, what ails the inmates of Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility clearly isn’t an inability to think well. Kushner’s great gift is for the evocation of a scene, a time and place, and the atmosphere this book most frequently conjures—following prisoners around the administrative segregation cells and the electric-fenced yard, flashing back to their memories of court and skid row and the San Francisco strip club of the title, poking into the thoughts of men like Hauser, whose free-world lives seem almost equally stalled—is one of pervasive claustrophobia. The protagonist, Romy Hall, who yearns for the small son she left behind and is serving two consecutive life sentences without any realistic possibility of parole, sometimes recognizes that the prison is merely a horrifically exaggerated extension of the hamster wheel outside:
To work at IHOP, you first go to Walmart or a place like it to get work shoes. Where you see, if you didn’t already know, that most of the adult-sized shoes they sell are for working on construction sites or in hospitals, prisons, restaurants, and schools, and the children’s shoes are starter versions of the same.
Her other civilian job was as a stripper at the Mars Room, where the same basic economics applied. (Women there had to choose between a frantic hustle and the better income guaranteed by a regular, who in Romy’s case turned stalker, but in either case they were always being undercut by Russian girls willing to give handjobs for twenty bucks a song.) Romy’s cellmate, Sammy, locked up off and on since age twelve, stashes her few possessions with other inmates every time she gets paroled, knowing that “her leaves from prison were just that, not departures but vacations.” As for Hauser, who lives up a mountain and tries to see his tenure at Stanville as a Thoreauvian adventure, he looks out not on an expanse of wilderness but on “a brutal, flat, machined landscape, with a strange lemonade light, thick with drifting topsoil and other pollutants from farm equipment and oil refineries.”
For the reader, there’s a familiarity to all this that only adds to the sense of walls closing in—we seem already to know the violence and boredom of the prison routines; the unintentionally comic institutional language (“Ladies, report to staff if you have a staph infection. Ladies, no whining”); the casual sadism of the guards; the systems for smuggling in contraband; the alliances, power struggles, and racial divides among the inmate population. Most of all, there’s the claustrophobia of the narrative itself: the combination of constant risk and limited possibility, the sickening strain of knowing something bad could happen at any minute and that nothing good ever will. This mood is often explicitly gendered. “Unfortunately for that baby,” Romy observes of a child born in receiving to a teenage fellow prisoner, “it was a girl.”
All this is enough to make more genteel forms of female imprisonment—the nuclear family, say—look like nothing to complain about. The English professor Lara Feigel is, in her determinedly unacademic work of literary criticism FREE WOMAN: LIFE, LIBERATION AND DORIS LESSING (Bloomsbury, $20), aware of that pitfall, though it’s part of her courageous take-me-or-leave-me approach to not bring it up until fairly late. She mentions the “anxiously protective” friends, both men and women, who read her drafts and worried that in sharing her discomfort with the gilded confines of monogamy and motherhood, Feigel might seem greedy and “dislikeable” on the page. (Ladies, no whining.) Hers is a quest narrative, exploring ideas about freedom that she finds in Lessing’s biography and work—how, and at what cost, it might be found, sexually, politically, socially, intellectually, in passionate love, or alone in nature—and weaving them into an account of her doubts and concerns about the course of her own life and marriage. This double plot requires an approach to reading about which Feigel the scholar at times feels self-conscious—an almost adolescent identification that she knows could seem needy as well as unprofessional.
She begins with her rereading of The Golden Notebook at a point, in her thirties, when at a succession of weddings she found herself frustrated by the conventionalism and domesticity all around her. She is disappointed by how little interest in freedom her generation evinces, considering how much is in theory available to them. Is it possible, she asks, for a woman “both to avoid wreckage and to avoid succumbing to the puritanical aspects of my own age”? Writing about Lessing leaving her two oldest children and her first husband, Feigel explores her own maternal ambivalence and her difficulty conceiving a second child; in considering Lessing’s thoughts on sexual desire and fulfillment, she gives a remarkably thorough accounting of her own varieties of orgasmic experience—and so on.
Feigel is an attentive reader, but the slightly riskier part of her venture is its demand that attention be paid to the inner workings of her life, a life that is extraordinary only in its advantages. In the course of writing the book, she becomes aware that the sense of unfreedom she chafes at may have more to do with her own oppressive “eagerness to please,” and thus that the self-exposure inherent in her project is part of a liberatory attempt to “conquer embarrassment and shame.” Where Kushner’s prisoners know that “you don’t talk about yourself because there is nothing to be gained from it,” and that when for strategic reasons you do decide to tell a story, it had better not be true, Feigel’s goal is to describe her feelings and discoveries in as much detail as possible.
Kushner’s prison does have its share of braggarts and bleeders. But unlike a memoirist, they have the immense advantage, from the reader’s point of view, of being made up. In CAPTIVE AUDIENCE: ON LOVE AND REALITY TV (Vintage, $16), the essayist Lucas Mann identifies a crucial challenge for both the kind of television he favors and the confessional mode of writing he likes to publish: readers and audiences will forgive an imaginary protagonist almost anything, but moral complexity seems a harder sell with someone we know to exist for real. Fundamentally, he writes, it is the manifestation of desire, especially the desire to be liked or at least watched, that evokes disgust. (Fictional characters can be seen without asking us to look.)
Mann is even more committed to self-exposure than Feigel, and where she risks elevating her emotional journey by putting it in proximity to a Nobel winner’s, he makes a point of filtering his through a “feminized” form that most people consider too lowbrow to be culturally rehabilitated. (Still, he can’t resist trotting out the likes of Roland Barthes, John Berger, and Guy Debord every now and again, and suspects reality TV haters of a kind of puritanism as well as snobbery—they can’t bear to watch an ordinary person become rich and famous, as if it’s immoral that such slobs should be getting “something for nothing.”) They’re both admirers of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, though Mann cites in particular Kraus’s defense of “bad art.” Such work invites inventive engagement from the reader or viewer and has the Ed Wood–esque charm of seeing the gulf between someone’s intent and actual accomplishment.
No surprise, then, that Mann takes the effort to embarrass himself so much further than Feigel does, offering up his petty ambitions and insecurities in excruciating detail, sparing no undignified angle, letting no vain or histrionic thought go unshared. Feigel might suggest, as she does about Karl Ove Knausgaard, that a man can get away with such antics more easily—still, it’s only fair to say that Mann goes out of his way to court the derision of anyone with a taste for the macho. With his stage-actress wife (addressed in a heightened second person throughout), he agonizes about his weight: “‘Am I as fat as Rob [Kardashian]?’ I ask so that you’ll say no.” “I was so moved,” he writes, of a poem he came across on Twitter. “I am so moved writing this; tears on my fucking keyboard and all that, literal tears, no metaphor.” He fixates on how he and his wife must look to others and admits that these thoughts only intensify at times when you might expect them to be supplanted by something more substantial: “I felt so horrified at the prospect of a world without you,” he recalls of the time she broke her back in a bike accident, “and I wanted to see what that degree of care might look like on me.” When the doctor greets his visible distress with a compassionate, admiring expression, Mann “registered his look as one I’d never received.”
The reader spends much of the book observing Mann slumped against his wife in front of the TV, savoring the real housewives and Honey Boo Boos, watching her watching them, imagining how he might appear when she lifts her eyes from the screen to him. This is Mann’s version of Kushner’s mimesis, in which the reader feels as trapped as the characters: as though he is our very own reality star, we see Mann anxiously packaging himself for our consumption, daring us to wonder whether it’s worth it to continue watching, and whether we are in some way complicit in his sedentary, obsessive lifestyle. We observe his marriage rather as he observes the less fortunate characters in rubbernecking shows like Hoarders or Intervention: “It’s the fear of what you see in front of you, and the desire to protect yourself from what you see until the intensity of that desire begins to resemble the panic of what you’re seeing.” Marriage, of course, is more usually portrayed as captivity from the woman’s perspective. In this case, I felt for Torvald nearly as much as for Nora. Here, the relationship is apparently a happy one, and in this context, the lack of resolution—a key part of the appeal of soapy reality TV—can perhaps be seen as romantic in itself. Anyone hoping, as I now and then did, that Mann’s endlessly supportive wife might one day leap from the couch, fling aside the remote, and make a break for it will be disappointed—although I did take note that one of her most “visceral” stage performances was in her own adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Since this book of necessity follows the anti-transformational logic of its subject (even if someone does lose the weight or get off drugs, there’ll be another hopeless case in the next episode, and the genre’s biggest stars have a vested interest in not changing themselves too much), and since, as Mann admits, reality TV seems to have ebbed from its cultural high-water mark, it’s not clear how he would have ended his book had the 2016 election gone differently. As it stands, he’s able to close with the bizarre extradiegetic success of The Apprentice, about which he grills a group of big- and small-time producers. This tribe has a set of highly specific rules and assumptions, rather as Romy and her comrades do. They
spoke the way I imagine soldiers speak to one another, or bail bondsmen, or sex workers; they spoke as though there was a world of civilians out there—rubes, naïfs—and then there was them, the ones who had seen the thing up close.
Yet they don’t have a lot to add about Donald Trump, whose appeal is pretty much what it looks like. As with marriage, putting in the time doesn’t always mean you understand something better than anyone else would. Even Kushner’s creepy prison teacher gradually begins to notice that there are some problems that won’t allow you to read—or write—your way out.