The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner | Book Review

The Mars Room is one of the six novels shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. The book is Romy’s story. When we meet her, Romy Hall is an inmate in the California prison system, convicted for murder and  serving the first of two consecutive life sentences. The novel is written in stream of consciousness format, and alternates between her being transferred from one facility to another – one type of prison to another – and flashbacks to her life before the crimes and the experiences that motivated her to commit the actions for which she is being punished. Much of the novel, then, consists of graphic details of the various facilities, interactions between inmates and administration, abuse that led to the crimes, as well as the experience of the victim right before the crime so as a reader, you are able to witness the events from both victim and aggressor, and determine your own verdict. I thought this was a clever way to write a crime story, but the execution left me a little less emotional in siding with either one. The novel in its entirety offers a snarky commentary on the prison system and how abuse begets abuse, so both criminals and victims are painted as irresponsibly indulging in their inclinations. 

The prison drama and the description of addiction and working as a stripper at the Mars Room to pay for said addiction, is not the kind of story that usually interests me. It was hard to read about Romy’s experience of being moved from jail to prison, and of correction officers mistreating the inmates, ignoring their requests even in life-or-death situations. And despite the inclusion of an inmate’s death, another inmate giving birth and not being able to even hold her newborn, Romy’s recollection of the poor defense she received from the public defender who botched her case, at page 92, I felt no more empathy for her as a character than I did at the beginning. Everything she said felt like a story. Romy’s story. The same story that every prisoner gives to convince you of their innocence. Or that it wasn’t their fault. I suppose this was the author’s intention, to use an unlikable character to test the reader’s ability to see beyond the crime in this kind of genre story. To continue in that vein then, she included an uber-literary character – an English professor named Gordon Hauser, whose inability to complete his dissertation and pay his bills pushes him to take a teaching job in a women’s prison. Through conversations between Gordon and his more scholarly colleague, the author introduces academic criminals like Ted Kaczynski, a Math Professor who became the notorious Unabomber, and even Henry Thoreau and Norman Mailer, both intellectual with colorful backgrounds.

When Hauser is transferred to Stanville and starts to work with Romy, the book picked up, and not just in the interaction that finally felt like a real conversation between two people instead of a cliched diatribe of crime fiction. Even Romy’s recollections start to feel more real, and at this point, the writing style changes from clauses written like short sentences, to grammatically correct prose. Around page 113, Romy recalls a story that her former boyfriend told her son that compares the system of names versus numbers with the criminalization of the inmates, and I enjoyed the multiplicity of identities that this story within a story hinted at. I admired the author’s attempt to bridge the gap between crime fiction and more scholarly literature, mirrored in Hauser’s purchasing books for inmates he hopes to prepare for the GED but instead, finding some of the women are sufficiently academic to discuss more advanced works. Kushner compares Hauser to the Unabomber, even to the point of including pages of Kaczynski’s diary pages to link the identities of the two men, both professors who moved to the woods and started committing crimes, even if Hauser’s actions are fueled by his desire to help. Yet, she represents all the men in this story as victims – hapless, witless, slaves to their desires, reinforcing the cycle of abuse when they try to victimize the women who are manipulating them.
The narrative is flooded with details that should be shocking except that they read like cliches where every criminal was raped, where every law enforcement officer is corrupt, where every man is stupid or damaged and the only source of goodness and light comes from Jackson, our main character’s son who she wants to risk heaven and hell to get back, which begs the question whether the life she might offer him wouldn’t give him the same experience of the other adult male characters.
I read the novel in its entirety but my lack of excitement might have to do with the fact that the storyline felt like it tried to bridge the gap between crime and literary fiction and left me in the water at the places where the construction failed.

I gave this a 2.5 star rating because:

  • I admired how the author portrayed our highly criminalized society and its paradox of glorifying crimes in entertainment and yet prosecuting when life too closely imitates art.
  • I liked the inclusion of Hauser’s character and his way of philosophizing the various motivations behind criminal behavior
  • I didn’t like the extraneous characters who kept turning up dead when the author had no more use for them
  • I didn’t like what felt like overused descriptions of abused-children-turned-criminals. I know it happens, but not every criminal has the same story
  • And I didn’t like the male representation in any of the subplots.

But this is a Man Booker finalist so lots of people disagree with me. Right now, The Mars Room has a 3.52 rating on Goodreads, has been reviewed by 1,410 people and rated 8,247 times. And the recent nomination to the Booker shortlist means it will find lots of new readers. If you’d like to purchase a copy of this or any other book, click the links below to use my affiliate link where I’ll make a commission to foster my book-buying habits. Thanks!

Book Depository  Amazon

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