Booker Longlist Review: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

by Sunita

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.

Mars Room cover

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 nonetheless bygone era to hammer home her points.

3 stars at Goodreads.