in review: The Mars Room


The Mars Room
by Rachel Kushner
Publication Date: April 2, 2018
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

I was 17 when I committed a felony in the State of Texas. I was arrested along with my friends and taken to a county precinct. This gave me more experience than I’d have liked to have as the receiving end of The State of Texas vs… It also gave me enough experience to know how accurately Rachel Kushner gets the loss of freedom and the grind of blind justice in The Mars Room.

At the center of The Mars Room is Romy Hall, who tells of her life before and after receiving a life sentence. We enter Hall’s story as she is being transported from one prison to another, and she begins reflecting on how she ended up in this position. We don’t know much more than it has to do with her life at The Mars Room, a seedy strip club in San Francisco, and Creep Kennedy.

While there is no confusion about why Romy is in prison—she murdered someone—Kushner successfully portrays the absurdity associated with conviction proceedings when describing Romy's time in court. The experience is convoluted and inscrutable. Looking back, the decisions that were made on my behalf and how they were arrived at are as much a mystery to me today as when they happened.

Authenticity is something that Rachel Kushner does best: her prose makes it easy to identify with Romy’s mindset and circumstance. Romy’s choices are believable, with an identifiable internal logic, and Kushner extends a pitch-perfect tone that’s immediately evident to anyone who’s had any interactions with our criminal justice system. In this world, choices are not made. Agency ceases to exist. In prison and in court, life is reduced to brutal cause and effect—the only story is the one that has happened. Romy thinks, “We were all hopeful things would go differently. They did not go differently. They went this way.”

Although the novel is a commentary on the justice system we’ve built, it does so only by being purely descriptive. We put people in these places because we’ve said they had to go there. Nonetheless, Kushner is relentless. A bureaucratic law of thermodynamics reigns: for every action there is an equal rule and consequence to govern it.

We’ve been told these stories before, perhaps most eloquently in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kesey played with a chaotic element, Randall Patrick McMurphy, that exposed the injustices of the mid-century mental health system. But Kushner, for all of her talent, fails to achieve the same insight with her fatalistic tale. For everything that she does so well, I was left wondering what the point of it all was. Then again, maybe that was the point.

Jason Smith