Featured Reviews, VOLUME 11

Rachel Kushner – The Mars Room [Review]

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A Review of

The Mars Room:
A Novel

Rachel Kushner

Hardback: Scribner, 2018
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Reviewed by Grant Currier


I won’t lie to you and say I didn’t devour Rachel Kushner’s newest novel; I did. Gorged myself on its lucid prose and somber setting that spread over the crispness of even its vulgar passages like frosting over a hot cake. During Epiphany, thousands of New Orleanians partake of their carnival bread, the king cake in which a minuscule baby doll is typically placed as an act of symbolism. As I read The Mars Room, I felt I was feeding on a literary king cake searching for the trinketry of a plastic baby Jesus, for the rich symbolism of humanity’s suffering and redemption. My fingers became almost sticky with the text’s messiness, but I kept eating believing I would find the doll, the redemption, but with the entirety of the novel digested, I have to confront the empty promise, though the book is not without its delicacies.

To be fair, Kushner’s novel makes no such promises of redemption. Her ingredients are more fractional, providing a plot as thinly salubrious as wheat germ (escape from prison), and populating the narrative with characters as substantial as garnish, with few if any being fully cooked characters.

Though Kushner’s new novel centers on Romy Leslie Hall and a handful of years during her consecutive two-life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, she is not developed or interesting enough to carry the weight of the work. Having started drinking and abusing drugs at a young age, Romy began working as a stripper at The Mars Room where she won the unwanted affections of spectators, patrons, and a man she dubs Creep Kennedy. After moving across California, she lures Kennedy to her apartment where she bludgeons him to death. While incarcerated Romy learns of her mother’s death and plans an escape to regain connection with her son, Jackson, who has disappeared into the ward system.

The novel’s five sections are unevenly structured, deviating from the central voice of Romy in the first to secondary and peripheral characters throughout the remaining four parts. Because so little happens to Romy, I found many of the characters far more alluring than her, and for all the uncushioned tip-toeing around of clearly political choices (prison reform, the abuses and exploitation of women, transgender discrimination and suffering) the political insertions feel inorganic and distract from the unity of the whole.

Gordon Hauser is a youthful idealist, intrigued by Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski, who teaches GED courses at Stanville. Romy’s characteristically white beauty intrigues him, but after living in a cramped and isolated cabin he breaks off contact with her and becomes even more of an individual. Adapted excerpts from Ted Kaczynski pockmark the book’s five sections as semi-connected reflections Gordon Hauser entertains on the differences between Thoreau’s individualism and the Unabomber. But no conclusions are reached.

Jimmy Darling plods around with pre-incarcerated Romy but never opens himself to the demands and sacrifices of commitment, leaving her and her son after her arrest. Button Sanchez arrives to Stanville pregnant and when she gives birth, the child is stripped from her and becomes, like Romy’s son, a ward of the state. To cope with her loss she raises a rabbit, sewing clothes for it and declaring she is “its mom.” Betty LaFrance waits her end on death row for hiring Doc to kill another assassin she suspects of being dirty. Doc is a crooked cop serving his sentence for contract killing and spends his days masturbating to his own onanistic fantasies.

There is almost a relish in the depravity depicted here as much of it is senseless as though to prove some undisclosed point. The entire world Kushner depicts is a sort of concrete purgatory: a place of order, of hierarchy, of sins remembered, but sins unconfessed and often unremorsed. During the Chain Night procession from one facility to another, Romy sees “a mattress leaned against a pepper tree” and muses that “all good [is] bound to bad, and made bad.” The good of the novel is also strictly outside it, as we, like Romy, are isolated from Jackson, the one character arguably uncorrupted because of his youth. But his youth is cloyingly mature and insightful—far beyond the most precocious five year old.

Nevertheless, The Mars Room confronts us with particularly important questions. Identity has long been a staple literary theme. Kushner approaches this theme with a net of stoic and dignified knots; and, like a person enmeshed in a trawl, though there is little distinction between the world outside and inside the net, so there is little to mark the world inside or outside prison. While waiting for her own hearing, Romy witnesses the dehumanizing judicatory parade of Johnson. Like a Roman slave, he is identified by the color of his jumpsuit, and a wristband that “indicated open wounds…bacterial infection, or something worse. Defiance. Depression. Dyslexia. HIV. Mental degradation.”

As these individuals are searching for and forming new identities the multiple transgender characters in the novel reinforce the theme of identity being an impermanent, autonomous thing. The problem arises from this: Romy and her fellow inmates are no more human to Kushner than they are to the guards at Stanville. For both they are objects to be manipulated, modes of currency to be bartered in exchange for clout or emotional payoff, and they rarely come across as  humans deserving of pity or affection.

What Kushner truly explores here is human nature, though the novel does not read as an attempt at this. It seems subsequent to a smaller political narrative of identity. It pushes against the recognizable parts of ourselves and draws us in, almost in a disbelief that these too are just like us. Romy writes that “people are stupider and less demonic than some can admit.” Reading The Mars Room is an encouragement to disagree with her on both points. I mean, it was Kafka who wrote in another carceral novel, “You are free and that is why you are lost,” right? But human nature and identity unmistakably border on each other, which is what makes this novel a blend of Americana and the Kafkaesque: it is a world of unmistakeable, inescapable cruelty; of abuses inflicted and endured; of consequences and sacrifice; and of senseless answers to unasked questions.


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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