IT’S THE MARS ROOM–ANYTHING GOES

I passed on reading The Mars Room some time back when the synopsis pointed toward what I suspected was an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Orange Is The New Black. However, my granddaughter brought it to our (safe) covid retreat over July 4, so it fell into my lap, so to speak, so I dived in, so to speak.

Turns out my original assessment was about half right. It’s definitely a women-behind-bars narrative with plenty of gruesome details and sex galore. But it’s also a sort of coming-of-age novel with a thing or two to say about the dilemmas of kids without support or stable families. There is also, of course, the matter of the criminal mind per se, but protagonist Roma doesn’t quite make the grade in that category, which makes her a more sympathetic character than she would otherwise be.

Roma Hall grew up wild on the streets of San Francisco thanks to a neglectful mom and a splendid imagination for getting into trouble without getting caught. The Mars Room itself is a San Francisco strip club/lap dancing establishment way down on any scale of trashiness. Roma sees it as a perfect fit for her random lifestyle because for Roma 1) grinding is easier than talking, 2) nobody gives a shit when or if you report for work, 3) the money is better than minimum-wage burger-flipping or cosmetic-hawking alternatives. She ends up in the clink because she kills a stalker who fastens on to her in The Mars Room.

I recently finished The New Jim Crow. Roma is white, but, having been enlightened somewhat by Jim Crow I can see that bad as it is for people of color, the horrors visited upon Roma in our criminal injustice system are equal-opportunity events.

The key element is that no one in the system wants to go to the trouble of putting people on trial–too expensive and time-consuming, especially for overworked, burned-out public defenders. Plus, in the category of sympathetic defendant in the courtroom, Roma is lousy bet. A stripper (not a prostitute, but try to convince a jury of that when her history comes out.) whose brand is so tainted that the best she can hope for is to use a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty. The result? two consecutive life terms plus some extra. Some bargain.

Once behind bars, basically forever, she falls into all the devious manipulations open to her. She’s pretty smart, plenty streetwise, and managed to graduate high school. Thus, she develops a relationship with a tutor who is basically there to help people get GED’s and is  happy to find someone who can actually read even though she had no use for the GED (or any other certificate, really)

Roma uses this relationship to good effect. I might not have found convincing the extent she is able to lead this guy around by the nose had I not recalled a recent incident in an upstate New York prison in which two convicts (murderers, no less) manipulated an employee in the prison laundry into aiding and abetting their escape. It was, I believe, their abetter’s inability or unwillingness to procure a getaway vehicle that spelled doom to that attempt; but they were loose for a week or two.

RACHEL KUSHNER

For Roma, their conversations are at first, a relief from the normal prison routine. More important, she is later desperate to get news of the son she left behind. All she is able to find out is that the state has taken away all her parental rights. Officially, she will never get news of, let alone access to, her child. However, she hopes the tutor will somehow at least find out some details about the boy’s situation. The tutor teases her and himself into thinking that might be possible.

This thread continues as part of the suspense-narrative structure throughout the book, and Kushner makes excellent dramatic use of it to build some suspense in a situation in which the possibilities for change are enormously limited. Without doing a total spoiler, I will say that Roma’s intelligence and ingenuity help her create circumstances that make for a suspenseful and thrilling end.

The Mars Room is, as it turns out, though not the book of the year, a better read by far than I expected.

 


WHAT’S HUMAN AND WHAT’S NOT

Between my previous blog on The Invention of Yesterday, A 50,00 Year of Human Culture and this one on Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, A Brief  History of Mankind, I should be completely versed on the entirety of human affairs from our literal beginnings and beyond. I guess I could quit reading altogether, but I’m far too addicted for that and well beyond the help of any program 12 steps or 12,000.

Yuval Noah Harari

What’s most remarkable to me about Sapiens is the manner and extent in which Harari melds scientific and biological evidence with sociological and cultural. We go back to pre-neanderthal times (100,000 years ago and more) when probably several different editions of our species were roaming the earth. Whether and how they met, intermarried, or otherwise communicated with one another is speculative, but Harari’s point is that we can’t buy into the linear progression from ape-neanderthal-homo sapiens (means “wise man,” by the way. Some joke that.) that most early textbooks imagined.

Rather, we somehow outran, outdueled, outlived our ancestors despite our smaller brains and inferior muscle mass. How? We outsmarted them, and we were better able to work cooperatively. In so doing, we wiped out the larger species of every other animal group we encountered as we migrated from east to west and north to south. [That doesn’t include dinosaurs, of course, who came a few tens of millions of years earlier.]

Why are there no more sabertooth tigers or mammoths, or giant kangaroos or a host of other creatures whose bones archeologists have excavated? They couldn’t reproduce fast enough or in sufficient numbers to keep up with the rate at which we slaughtered them. And all this without the aid of a single elephant gun. Thus did we dominate our earth.

But Harari doesn’t stop there. What’s the next stage? Obviously AI, where our own inventions will produce “fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity.” And with the possibility of replacing our biological parts with mechanical and electronic ones, we maybe could become, not immortal, but as he terms it “amortal”. Beings whose longevity will extend far beyond anything we’ve been able to achieve so far.

Between you and me I’m not enough of a “Homo Sapien” to think that would be a good thing. But maybe I’m just in a sort of neanderthal stage and can’t appreciate the possibilities.

 

 


On The Fragility of White Folks

So what does this Robin DiAngelo get off with this title? How can a whole race of people who have collectively conquered, dominated, enslaved, incarcerated, and subjugated every other race (except maybe the mainland Chinese) on the planet for centuries–how can a race like that be called “Fragile”? So, at first the title didn’t make much sense, but a group I’m in wanted to read it, so I dived in.

DiAngelo is a veteran of racial awareness workshops both inside and outside academia. She makes a persuasive case (with the exception of some rather clumsy writing, but I’ve come to expect that of educational and sociological prose so I got past it fairly easily.) that despite all our years of sensitivity training and near-universal attitude changes which make overt racial prejudice as unwelcome as COVID in an ICU ward, racism and white supremacist sentiments and actions are alive and thriving across the land.

That’s not news, of course, given the horrid events of the day. What may be newsworthy, though, is the source and manner of the racism among those of us who consider ourselves among the uninfected. I’ll turn to one example Diangelo quotes from one of her groups. During a discussion, a black man referred to himself as “stupid.” A black female colleague assured him that wasn’t the case but that the dominant culture wanted him to believe it. A white woman intervened by saying, “what he was trying to say was. . .” She was, of course, trying to be helpful, but she was also, of course, perpetuating a racist pattern of assuming that she knew better than the man himself what he was trying to say. The guy was caught in between. It’s the kind of thing black folk encounter multiple times a day. And, in the larger context, the kind of thing that perpetuates de facto white supremacy about which black people can do little except navigate. But can to little to change.

The fragility part comes in when the author called the woman on her assumption. Immediate defensiveness and anger, followed by tears and a refusal to discuss the matter further. Her tears and retreat bought her sympathy from others in the group. The whole racial point and the man’s contribution were lost.

Another dynamic DiAngelo points to in similar situations ends with the black man trying to explain himself, thus perpetuating the notion that black people owe us an explanation some amelioration for our own tender and offended feelings.

Anecdotes like this abound, and it makes one despair of changing things. What’s most important is, though, that it is up to us white folks to cure ourselves. It’s both simple and complicated. I think we would start with one of DiAngelo’s sentences and perhaps stand a chance of getting somewhere.

Stopping our racist patterns must be more important than convincing others we don’t have them. 

Without that, we continue with destruction and misunderstanding. With that, we might have a chance.

ROBIN DIANGELO

 

 

 

 

 

 


LOUISE ERDRICH TRIUMPHS ONCE MORE

The Night Watchman. Doesn’t sound much like an Erdrich title, does it? The Last Report On the Miracles At Little No Horse, Antelope Wife, The Painted DrumIt takes only a few pages, though, to demonstrate that we are squarely in Louise’s territory.

It’s the early 1950’s. The Turtle Mountain Chippewas are imperiled. A racist congressman has introduced a bill relieving government of all responsibility for the tribe so that they can live more responsible American lives. That his proposal abrogates the treaty that promised them their land (scant and poor as it is) “as long as the grass grows and the river flows” is of no consequence to this guy.

LOUISE ERDRICH

Put that way, this sounds like a social protest book, and that element is certainly part of the picture. However, Erdrich grounds the saga in Native American family life. Love, sex, survival, integrity. In some ways, this is a coming of age book for protagonist “Pixie” who keeps trying to change what people call her to “Patrice” as one way of growing up. People try, but it’s a struggle. It might sound like a trivial thing that is important only to one young woman, but her battle is emblematic of the struggle for identity of an entire people. They’re trying hard to survive and stay sane and stay themselves in the face of hostile campaigns from all sides. And of course this has been going on for generations.

And what of the night watchman? He takes his lunch pail to work every night to guard a warehouse. And to write the script for the tribe’s defense against the ugly legislation. And to commune with an owl who keeps visiting for purposes baffling and mysterious.

As always in an Erdrich tale, there’s generous comedy here. Of note to me is one scene where a stallion takes off after a mare in heat and disrupts a parade. I was reminded of a sequence in Little No Horse where a sled is hijacked by a runaway moose, and we follow his bouncing balls across a lake.

But comical as some of the novel is, it is also painful and touching. We love these characters and we love following their travails. And I love the ending. A true surprise of the most pleasing and profound sort.

Thanks again, Louise. You’ve enriched my life yet again.


MY REFUGEE BUDDY

Alex Panasenko and I were faculty-mates at a bay area high school for decades. He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known, and he was one of the most popular teachers on the staff.

He’s an eccentric cuss who doesn’t much care whom he offends, but still keeps himself likable. His appearance and accent are, to me, vaguely East European, maybe Russian, but I never got him to talk to me much about his background. I didn’t pry too hard. None of my business. After reading The Long Vacation I believe I understand a bit about his reluctance to dwell on the past. It was brutal, and in this memoir he tells the story beautifully.

We start in Ukraine. Alex’s (abusive) father teaches science, his mother keeps the house. They are poor but more or less comfortable even though Stalin is in charge. Then things go downhill. I’m going to skip over, even distort, much of what follows so as not to spoil the book for you readers, but I hope to deliver the flavor anyhow.

Stalin institutes one of his famous 5-year plans, which is really a project designed to starve Ukraine into submission so the vast, rich land can be handed over to Russians. (Sound familiar?) Then the Germans invade, and Alex is conscripted and the family is basically sent to war along with everyone else. Alex is separated from his parents and siblings and forced to hook up with some Germans for protection. This seeming shelter puts him in more peril because one of Stalin’s decrees is that any Russians (Ukrainians count for Brother Joe’s purposes in this instance) who conspire with Germans are subject to being shot on sight. The boy has to do a lot of dodging.

Most of us know the broad historical outlines here. The German invasion, the Russian slaughter, the German retreat, the horrid, bitter cold, the excruciating suffering–Alex the child was in the middle of it all.

Perhaps one anecdote will serve to illustrate. I’m thinking of the one about the exhausted mother on the train who fell asleep with her newborn in her arms, then awoke to find a frozen corpse in her lap. Bad enough. But then the agonizing guilt and shame drive her mad. She climbs off the train and starts walking in the direction where her child as been discarded in the snow miles earlier. The Russian guard on the train can’t allow her to “escape.” A single bullet takes care of her.

Alex leaves us when the Americans arrive. It’s been years since he’s been to school. He speaks Russian and a bit of German. End of “The Long Vacation.”

How he gets from Germany to the U.S., gets educated, ends up speaking fluent English and becomes an accomplished American science instructor I don’t know and find it hard to imagine. Anything I’ve suffered in my life is not worth a stubbed toe compared to this.

Aside from my personal attachment to Alex and his narrative, I find this a priceless piece of twentieth century history. Apparently, it took some doing to get him to write it. The world is richer for it. Nice going, Alex.