The Mars Room
by Rachel Kushner
On Chain Night, shackled Romy Hall takes a bus from Los Angeles to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility where she is to begin her prison sentence of two consecutive life terms plus six years. She shares the bus with talkative Laura Lipp, masculine Conan, streetwise Sammy Fernandez, and pregnant Button Sanchez, the youngest inmate on the trip. Later, she meets Gordon Hauser, a sympathetic and rather naive teacher in the prison system. While these characters populate her daily routines during the first years of her sentence, she often thinks about her son, Jackson, even though her parental rights have been terminated due to the length of her sentence.
I absolutely adored the writing style of The Mars Room and was fascinated by the characters and the themes. Rules factor prominently, both official and unspoken, including the rules we impose on ourselves. Kushner questions the legitimacy of the rule makers, the efficacy of the rules, and the implicit messages they send. One character observes, “No Tank Tops, the sign had said at Youth Guidance. Because it was presumed the parents didn’t know better than to show up to court looking like hell. The sign might have said Your Poverty Reeks.” No less important is the question of agency. The prison guards are clear that they believe the inmates made choices that landed them in their situation, but this easy blame ignores the poverty, abuse, addiction, and lack of education that channel many of the prisoners into a life of criminality.
Many of the female, and some male, characters, have a history of sex work, abuse, stalking, or a combination, which informs their understanding of sexuality and power. Furthermore, through differences between men and women’s prisons and the introduction of transsexual characters, the role of gender in the correctional system is highlighted. Serenity Smith, a male prisoner who gives himself a sex change operation and is reclassified as a woman, becomes a flashpoint for the issue.
Although there is violence in The Mars Room, there is much less than I expected, and I was quite surprised that the prison guards were depicted for the most part as lazy or opportunistic rather than sadistic as is often common in the prison genre. In general, the book’s realism and engaging characters allow it to transcend common stereotypes.
As much as I loved the writing, I am undecided on some of Kushner’s stylistic and narrative choices. In some sections, particularly Chapter 1, Romy shifts topics as quickly as someone switching through channels. It’s so jarring that any deliberate point gets lost. Five chapters are excerpts from Ted Kaczynski’s writings, and while this could be an interesting strategy for introducing relationships with nature (tellingly, the Kaczynski’s book is called Technological Slavery), I’m not sure it works here. I’m also ambivalent about the title and cover depicting the strip club rather than the prison, although I understand there are thematic reasons for the title choice.
Ultimately, The Mars Room is not simply a prison novel. It asks the reader to ponder difficult questions about poverty, justice, and choice.