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The Mars Room: A Novel by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room: A Novel (original 2018; edition 2018)

by Rachel Kushner (Author)

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7004420,871 (3.76)93
"From twice National Book Award-nominated Rachel Kushner, whose Flamethrowers was called "the best, most brazen, most interesting book of the year" (Kathryn Schulz, New York magazine), comes a spectacularly compelling, heart-stopping novel about a life gone off the rails in contemporary America. It's 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility, deep in California's Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision. Stunning and unsentimental, The Mars Room demonstrates new levels of mastery and depth in Kushner's work. It is audacious and tragic, propulsive and yet beautifully refined."--… (more)
Title:The Mars Room: A Novel
Authors:Rachel Kushner (Author)
Info:Scribner (2018), Edition: First Edition Limited Issue, 352 pages
Collections:Your library

Work details

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (2018)

  1. 10
    Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins (rjuris)
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    Valencia by Michelle Tea (susanbooks)
    susanbooks: I feel like the protagonists could have crossed paths, and maybe that's both authors' point, that our lives, no matter our plans, have no narrative cohesion. Some rise, some fall, but it has nothing to do with virtue or talent or who deserves what. Those are all just stories we tell ourselves to feel okay about leaving people behind.… (more)

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The Mars Room has many storylines that never really connect. I kept reading to find out about the few characters I cared about, but nothing. I had hoped for a surprise ending, but that didn't happen either. Not a book I can recommend to others. ( )
  Beth.Clarke | Jun 28, 2019 |
This is the first book of Kushner's that I've read, but I was aware of her earlier novels and I knew the general subject and themes of this one before I started reading it as part of the Booker 2018 longlist. It has received a lot of advance press and glowing reviews, and Kushner has given a number of interviews. It's definitely been one of the most talked-about books of the year.

I went into it with high hopes, because mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex are issues I'm very interested in. But I found this book to be quite disappointing overall. It has flashes of brilliance, and Kushner has a distinctive and interesting writing style, but the flaws made it a very frustrating read.

These are big subjects, hard to wrestle into a coherent form, and it shows. The main narrator of the novel is Romy Hall, a 30-something woman who is serving two life sentences plus six years for the killing of her stalker. Romy has earned her living as a dancer in a strip club and supports her young son, first in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles. She earns just enough to survive, living in the Tenderloin in SF and in a run-down immigrant neighborhood in LA. When she is arrested she winds up in county jail until her trial, where she is represented by an overworked public defender. She refuses to plea bargain (unlike the vast majority of indigent plaintiffs) and winds up with a very harsh sentence and incarceration in the Central California Women's Prison in Chowchilla (here renamed Stanville). This is where the story begins; we learn Romy's past through flashbacks and conversations.

In addition to Romy, we get POV narration from another inmate, Martinez, as well as two men: Gordon Hauser is a permanently-ABD English grad student who gets a job as a teacher in Stanville, and Doc is a bent cop who is in prison for life for two murders (he's convicted for two but has killed more than that). Hauser is well-meaning but ineffectual and somewhat pathetic; Doc is a sociopathic racist and misogynist. Oh, and we also get excerpts from Ted Kaczynski's diaries, to which Kushner had access through an artist friend.

I think I understand the point of including the male characters: Kushner wanted to contrast the women inmates with male criminals and male outsiders. But they didn't work for me. Hauser seems to function primarily as a plot device. Doc is revolting and if the point was to show how awful criminals could be, to contrast the evil of men to the mistakes of women, it went way over the top. I don't need to see a sociopathic killer who's a man to understand that not all criminals are sociopaths, and being in his head was deeply unpleasant with no payoff to make up for it. The Kaczynski diaries seemed to be there because Kushner had them and found them fascinating; they provide atmosphere but that's it, and the novel has plenty of atmosphere without the confusion they add.

Kushner has not appreciated comparisons of her novel to the TV series Orange Is the New Black, but even I, who haven't seen any episodes, can see why the comparison is inevitable. We have a gang of colorful characters, anchored by a relatively more privileged white woman (Romy comes from a disadvantaged background, but she has a high school diploma, is both street- and book-smart, and was and remains attractive despite prison conditions). There is a black trans character who appears to be mostly sensible and caring, unpleasant white and other characters, and uniformly awful prison personnel. Kushner's writing elevates this well beyond the stock nature of the setup, but it's still, all told, a pretty stock setup.

My biggest problems with the novel are the sacrifice of characterization and plot to information dumping and the lack of variation in the narrative voices. Kushner did years of research in prisons, mostly with women, and the anecdotes, stories, and real people permeate the pages. The presence of barely-disguised real people is somewhat ironic, because all of the characters feel like constructs to make a point. We learn all kinds of little details about prison life, but they don't cohere into an interesting overall world. Once in a while I would get sucked into the story, but then something would pull me out. The novel revels in extremes: Romy talks like a grad student at times; the Doc passages wallow in his awfulness (he could have been half as graphic and still evil); Hauser works at the prison for years and seems to understand the system but falls for tricks over and over again.

Kushner started her research in 2011/12, after the state was forced by court decisions to improve prison conditions (overcrowding and other practices which were found to be "cruel and unusual"). But she sets her story in 2002-2006, before the changes. This embodies the choices she makes in the novel, for me: the prison system is still terrible, as she well knows from her research. But rather than tell us about the present, she invokes a recent but bygone era to hammer home her points. ( )
  Sunita_p | May 17, 2019 |
"The Mars Room" is a sad, elegiac book, and not just because it's main character is set to spend a long, long time in the joint. It's a lament, of a sort, for the character's youth and a loose, chaotic upbringing in post-Haight in San Francisco. It also commemorates a wide-open sort of America that the author suggests is fast disappearing: the reader senses how all sorts of new pressures have hemmed in our lives, from the corrections system to industrial agriculture to the fact that people like the book's narrator simply cannot find a place to live in San Francisco these days. In life, Henry David Thoreau might have been the original hippie to playact being a wilderness type -- he spent a short year on land that Ralph Waldo Emerson owned -- but Kushner's references to him here seem entirely appropriate. The descriptions of the prison system are both detailed and harrowing: I've never spent a day in jail, but it's hard to imagine a more restrictive environment than what Kushner describes here. There are places where I feel she connects her symbols a little too neatly, and other places where she points encouragingly to new spaces that might be opening up, as when she describes the woman prison's first transsexual inmate. And the book is beautifully written, in a graceful, balanced, voice that doesn't sacrifice clarity for emotional resonance.

At the same time, that's exactly the problem with the book. The novel's main character makes it clear that she's a reader and has a had more experience with high culture than you might expect, but I was never quite clear on how she got to came by this, especially since we don't hear much about her parents and most of the kids she went to school with seem to have either ended up either in jail or pretty far down the socioeconomic scale. Who got her reading and made it possible to finish high school when so many of the people she knew didn't?, Why is she able to narrate a story like this one so beautifully? This may just be a quibble about realism, but her (first-person) voice doesn't seem to so much as waver, even after spending a few months in what is essentially solitary confinement. It's clear that she's a survivor, but it's hard to imagine that level of emotional resilience is even possible. The answer just might be that Kushner can really, really write has a story that she needs to get across to the reader, which is perfectly reasonable. But I still feel that there are some missing chapters here, a part of this story that wasn't told. I've got some bones to pick with "The Mars Room," but it's a beautiful, readable novel that certainly worth your time if you're interested in where America as a whole might be headed. ( )
  TheAmpersand | Mar 18, 2019 |
The more I read of this perfectly fine novel, the more I struggled to understand the point of the whole enterprise. There’s nothing wrong with the writing and it has valuable things to say about poverty and addiction and the incarceration of young women. It’s just it brought nothing terribly original to the table either. Didn’t Orange is the New Black already cover this ground? I can’t imagine this sticking around for long in my consciousness. ( )
  asxz | Mar 13, 2019 |
I couldn't get past page 10 of [b:The Flamethrowers|15803141|The Flamethrowers|Rachel Kushner|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1523541469s/15803141.jpg|21526172], so I'm happy I've found a Kushner to like. Her slightly distanced, sardonic voice works really well with this story, keeping it from becoming bleak and creating some entertaining prison characters. It may be a kind of literary 'Orange is the New Black', but (based on the approx. 2 episodes I've seen) much less melodramatic and more meaningful.

I love Kushner's writing - she's a master of pithy description (the "ambient filth" of a drug house); caustic comment ("The neighbor next door...had emus....They were like people, violent and unpredictable, with brains the size of walnuts."); and just all-round great metaphorical description ("I didn't want to be subjected to his happiness, which seemed to be based on nothing, a thin layer of good cheer stretched over emptiness."). She can also drop some profound ideas into very economical sentences: "....maybe guilt and innocence were not even a real axis. Things went wrong in people's lives." And one more: "The lie of regret and of life gone off the rails. What rails. The life is the rails. It is its own rails and it goes where it goes. It cuts its own path. My path took me here." ( )
  badube | Mar 6, 2019 |
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