The Mars Room begins on a claustrophobic prison bus, but from there, it opens wide to a tableau of prison, poverty, gentrification, stripping, sex work, murder, and references to Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski. It’s technically a novel about Romy Hall, a mother who’s facing two consecutive life sentences, but it’s full of other interlinking stories, too: some brutal, some hopeful, most sad. It’s a novel that’s unsettling as much as it is enthralling. It’s not often that I feel I encounter capital-L Literature: a book that will be read and analyzed and loved decades or centuries from now and not just in this year or next year. I think that The Mars Room is that kind of literature.
You can read my full review below.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
- publisher: Scribner Book Company (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
- publication date: May 1, 2018
- length: 352 pages
- cover price: $27.00
Do you ever notice that women can seem common while men never do? You won’t ever hear anyone describe a man’s appearance as common. The common man means the average man, a typical man, a decent hardworking person of modest dreams and resources. A common woman is a woman who looks cheap. A woman who looks cheap doesn’t have to be respected, and so she has a certain value, a certain cheap value.
—The Mars Room, page 25
Romy Hall’s life is over. Convicted of murdering her stalker, she’s been separated from her 7-year-old son and prickly German mother in order to serve two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a women’s prison. After thirty-seven years, she will see the parole board that will determine if she can start serving the second sentence–requisite on good behavior, of course.
But what motivation possibly exists for good behavior when you know you’re going to be behind bars forever either way? Not much, I imagine, and The Mars Room tells the sometimes sordid, always riveting story of Romy’s bad behaviors past and present, inside and outside the prison.
There are other linked characters whose stories we experience, too, including a former leg model on death row, a dirty L.A. cop with an intriguing moral code, and a well-meaning G.E.D. teacher who gets in over his head with the women at the prison.
The Mars Room excels at casting light on the absurdities, hypocrisies, and desperations that exist in the American criminal justice system (and in our society at large). Its characters seem to exist perpetually at the end of a rope, and in a less-good novel, I might have pitied them. This novel, however, evokes feelings that are much more complex: I wanted to scold, wanted to yell, wanted to embrace, wanted to weep. It’s an emotional symphony that’s unbearably loud but also impossible to walk away from.
Kushner writes characters who are as frustrating as they are compelling. Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and fatphobia are intense and constant presences here, and slurs and vicious acts are perpetrated by every character. At first I found it too upsetting to handle and set the book aside. I’m glad I went back, though: Kushner seems to truly understand what people tick, and that includes bigotry. It doesn’t feel like it’s there for shock value; it isn’t malevolent so much as mundane, and somehow that mundanity is even more chilling than a clear-cut villain would be.
The literary community has been buzzing with talk of “unlikeable” female characters lately (most recently in this excellent interview with Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects fame), and I think that The Mars Room digs deeper into that idea than any novel I’ve ever read before, and here’s why:
There’s a world of difference between an “unlikeable” protagonist like Amy Dunne of Gone Girl–a wealthy white woman who speaks truth to a power that she also, sort of, possesses–and an unlikeable protagonist like Romy, a sex worker who lives in a hotel in the Tenderloin, who leaves her son with random babysitters, who steals and does drugs and manipulates men into giving her what she wants, whose own lawyer won’t let her take the stand because he knows the jury will hate her.
One kind of unlikeable woman has a go, grrl! cachet (like alleged scammer Anna Delvey, though as far as we know Delvey isn’t a sociopathic murderer like Dunne), and one gets sent to prison for life with no friends, no family, no lovers, and no advocates, like tens of thousands of real women nationwide.
Its virtuoso character development aside, The Mars Room also features some damn good settings. Kushner paints a portrait of a seedy-but-rapidly-gentrifying San Francisco in word-pictures as neon and memorable as strip club lights. The Mars Room is set in the early 2000s, around the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the claustrophobic jingoism of that moment adds immeasurably to the novel. We don’t hear so much about the inside of the prison as we do about the polluted valley where it’s located: a smart decision, I think, since most readers have an ample idea of what a prison looks like. A poisoned, isolated scrap of California eucalyptus and redwood forest was much more frightening and interesting to me than cinderblock walls.
Lastly, Kushner’s prose is simply magic. I can’t decide whether there’s a lot happening in The Mars Room or barely anything; it’s told mostly in flashbacks which are usually a tension-killer for me. Yet in Kushner’s skilled hands, stories that should be foregone conclusions (prisoners facing life, prisoners facing the death penalty) are as gripping as an action movie. Kushner takes the world we see every day and clarifies it into something eerie and hyper-real, something that literally kept me up at night while I was reading.
The Mars Room is a triumph: a novel that is at once sharp and declarative, fuzzy and gray. I could argue a million different things about it and I’m sure you could argue ten million back at me. It’s unforgettable. Don’t miss it. ★★★★★
My copy of The Mars Room came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.