The Mars Room (2018), by Rachel Kushner


A case might be made now–halfway through 2018–that two of the most dominant voices in current American literary fiction are the novelists Gillian Flynn for Gone Girl and Rachel Kushner for The Mars Room. A literary gift, Flynn’s unexpected, brilliantly original, and mind-changing masterpiece, is a broad but controlled capturing of the present American drama wickedly satirized. The novel’s probity, range and passion are vital and yet beyond too many of the Usual Suspect literary critics distracted by their particular hobgoblin, “genre” fiction, of which Flynn’s novel is anything but. (See elsewhere in the present blog for a review of Gone Girl.) Conversely, The Mars Room is quite recognizable as serious literature: the signs are obvious and heartening.

The Mars Room is immediately an American expose’ of women in prison, including ample demonstration of attendant male psychology and conduct. Kushner is no absolutist when it comes to diagnosing motives, but the overriding sense she brings is that of the perils of being poor and existing in lifestyle turmoil. With a dismaying frequency, her characters battling chaos end up too often falling into trouble. Her hero is the young single-mom, Romy Hall, sentenced to serve two consecutive life terms for killing a very dangerous and obsessed stalker who pursued Romy and her toddler son, Jackson, from Northern to Southern California. But Romy’s troubles start well before then. Earlier in life, while growing up, and ever failed by her parents, eleven-year-old Romy, virtually unsupervised, is already roaming San Francisco at age eleven and one day is raped, a calamity that in many indirect ways hastens Romy’s sad journey to later imprisonment. Along the way, as she grows up with none of the security and warmth of a middle class upbringing (a point of which Kushner reminds more than once), Romy turns tricks and works as a lap dancer at the nightclub, “The Mars Room.” Kushner leaves it up to us to appreciate the metaphor in the name of the nightclub: it’s not a tough assignment, eh?

Kushner is explicit: Romy tells us at one point–you and yours truly and all other readers–about how and why she got into trouble on one of many occasions as a mere kid:

You would not have been wondering lost at midnight at age eleven. You would have been safe and dry and asleep, at home with your mother and your father who cares about you and had rules, curfews, expectations. Everything for you would have been different. But if you were me, you would have done what I did. You would have gone (to the male stranger’s room), hopeful and stupid, to get the money for the taxi.

Fortune does not favor the Romys of the world.

In a mythic sense, Kushner extends the focus of her novel to allow us to reflect on prison life together with settings such as The Mars Room nightclub as metaphorically standing for the often cruel and hard world itself, a punishing savage world besetting Innocents: a place and life experience with undeniably a tragic aspect. No matter our place, we are finally closer to Romy than we might ordinarily think.

Indeed, one concern of Kushner in gifting us with The Mars Room is to dramatize the current theme that America now suffers from a policy of “mass incarceration”  but does not think about it. The practice encourages (i) poor legal representation for the Romys of the world–in the deliberative courtroom Romy, killer of her stalker, receives from her disreputable court-appointed attorney nothing like the sophisticated legal defense she needs; and (ii) “mass incarceration” especially creates a prison culture that makes of daily existence a perverse exercise in survival which fosters little behavior that might support parole.

Here is a beautiful example of promoting unity-of-theme in her novel by the talented Kushner: What better selection of a wakeful and stunning experience in prison that also serves as a perfect little parable of our need as distracted citizens to reflect on “mass incarceration” than Kushner having new prisoners, newly uniformed on their first day in prison garb, enter suddenly onto the exercise yard and witness the prison-specific shocking scene of hundreds of females milling about in uniform! You’d get used to the scene rapidly, you must suppose, but you and I and Kushner’s fellow readers would certainly find the first experience of the scene a “wake-up call,” as the cliche goes! And you can worry that scene metaphorically as much as you wish and its symbolic import remains. The experience fits with Kushner’s art in The Mars Room of doing what a literary novel should do: bring news dramatically.

Apropos: The Mars Room reminds of other prison literature in its detailed and truthful rendering of the terrible life of prisoners, including the awful ingenuity of the prisoners in seeking normal comforts. (You have to imagine that Kushner may well have read The Gulag Archipelago and ilk.) Part of the shock in The Mars Room is the dawning that Kushner is dramatizing an American prison experience. In fact, novelist Kushner, consumed by the desire to bring special news, spent much time visiting and befriending women in prison and learning from them directly about their experiences. In style, The Mars Room is a narrative told as a series of stunning vignettes which must sound just as they first sounded–signature anecdotes prisoners told to Kushner.

Kushner has great talent, and we should expect much more from her. To read The Mars Room will take you far from “genre fiction” and into a most serious novel. It is very much worth the journey.

To show how well Kushner writes, here is a passage about Romy’s unsuccessful attempt to escape her women’s prison in California’s Central Valley. Having managed to flee the prison grounds, Romy, wounded, is hiding forlornly in the mountains, and her words should, I think, be read in the knowledge that Kushner has already had Romy say elsewhere in the novel, “There are good people out there”:

The damp from fog, like now, it’s inside me. I’m safe from it. Doesn’t even make me shiver. That kind of cold forms the deepest layer of my memories, from growing up there, treeless streets built on sand and the bad ocean, the broken bottle ocean with its big curve of concrete wall. Fatal Drownings Occur Here, the signs said on each stairwell down. Stirway to bonfire, to spray paint, to fistfight. Grandma’s closet at the beach was any car. Or depending on the wind, in those stairwells. Fatal drownings occur here.

We swam in our clothes. We never once worried about drowning. Death was not in our future. No person lives in the future. The present, the present, the present. Life keeps on being that.

Hall, we have you surrounded.

They were talking to me. Sounded like yard orders….

Barking of dogs. Closer now. 

Lights bathed the forest….

I emerged from the tree and turned into the light, not slow. I ran toward them, toward the light….

I gave him life (Jackson, her son who has been taken from her and whose whereabouts she does not know). It is quite a lot to give. It is the opposite of nothing. And the opposite of nothing is not something. It is everything.”