Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is a heartbreaking exploration of lives at the margins of society, mobilising fiercely inventive characters whose lives seem mostly to have been foredoomed; their various misfortunes bring them to the prison that is the staging ground of their encounters. Against the background of the horrifying experiences of a women’s prison, the central character reflects on the life, as a neglected child and an adult sex worker, that has led her to the killing for which she has been sentenced for the rest of her life... Kushner insists that we face the reality of what is being done in our names; and the energy and imagination of her craft enthrals on every page
A novel about gender, class and the absolute corruption of the American dream, The Mars Room explores the meaning of incarceration in our moment. Breezy, hardened, bleakly comic, it contains wonderfully rich dramatis personae and an extraordinary sensory vividness. It feels terrifyingly authentic
In her compelling third novel, Rachel Kushner spotlights every detail of prison life. She demonstrates how the system is designed to smother individuality, in its scale — “the sight of thousands all dressed alike is really striking the first time you see it” — and in its abundance of regulations... The Mars Room is about contraction, the world shrinking to prison’s razor wire and electric fence perimeter. The author exposes the horrors of life inside only to show that, for some, it’s easier than life outside
Rich in detail and noisy with voices, The Mars Room is an immersive reading experience, in a tradition of fiction drawing on American social history. Just occasionally it resembles a reporter’s novel, the characters becoming suspiciously sassy mouthpieces.
More than confinement, the novel asks questions about judgement and power. Romy and Gordon are joined by a cell block of vital and engrossing characters – the fast-living Betty LaFrance, for example, whose luck ran out at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, who brews moonshine in juice cartons and smuggled high stiletto heels on to death row. It is in such stories that The Mars Room comes alive, taking the reader on a hard-boiled tour through California’s forlorn neighbourhoods – to brothels, dive bars and casinos, where we encounter two of the novel’s darkest figures.
Kushner writes with an unsparing sense of the absurd, raging against capitalism and poverty, war and industrial farming, racial inequality and gentrification. As a polemic, it’s ferocious and smart. As a work of fiction, it’s clumsy and unsatisfying, zigzagging manically — as if Kushner wrote it while needing the loo.
Like all great fiction, The Mars Room is by native instinct a carnival of human complexity, emphasising the vast unknowability of human lives against systems and ideologies that would reduce them to manageable binaries: good and evil, right and wrong, guilty and innocent. Troubled by the lives of the women he encounters in his prison classes, Gordon thinks, “People can’t tolerate complexity. Instead, they simplify and distort.” It is a reminder of why we need Dostoevskys, Johnsons and Kushners.
The problem is that while everything is plausible in outline, much of it is not exactly convincingly inhabited. Romy often sounds more like an arts graduate than a stripper with few options in life: “Something brewed in me over the years I worked at the Mars Room, sitting on laps, deep into this flawed exchange.” Thanks partly to the continual changes of perspective, Kushner doesn’t quite find a distinctive tone, skipping from hardboiled to documentary to a rather fey poetic register.
Kushner’s great skill lies in her manipulation of focus. Through the accretion of small detail, she builds a formidably systemic world view, one in which capitalism is both merciless and inescapable... Her project is to show how those rhythms collide, and what happens to a person when they do. She succeeds beautifully, rendering visible the sequences of injustice and exploitation that underpin our society, yet never losing sight of the individual lives those processes depend on and destroy.
“The Mars Room” is much smaller in scope than either of its predecessors, and seemingly more modest, with less swagger in the writing. It’s a page turner all the same, and in some ways more affecting than the other books... The rest of Kushner’s novel is so powerful and realistic you come away convinced that all such escapes are illusory, and that even for those who get out, prison is still a life sentence.